LOS ANGELES, Calif. — Like two young boys wrapping up Pop Warner football practice, quarterbacks Cody Kessler
and Max Wittek
tossed each other touchdown passes before a tackling match ensued in the end zone. It was all fun and games for the redshirt sophomores -- who have forged a friendship over the last three years together at Troy -- and who are determined to put the fun back Trojan football as they head into the spring practice schedule
"I think we're so in love with this sport and we spend so much time doing it," explained Wittek, "Why not have a fun time doing it?"
Named the preseason No. 1 team in the country prior to the 2013 season and finishing with a 7-6 record, the attempt at injecting more fun appears sincere and authentic from Wittek and Kessler.
But the pair is aware a real battle will begin again on Tuesday with the first team practice of the spring. The two quarterbacks will be competing to replace Matt Barkley -- but remain steadfast, they'll be supporting each other on the journey.
"We both know when we're on the field it's straight competition," Kessler explained after the afternoon voluntary throwing session. "At the same time, we're trying to learn from each other and make each other better. Off the field we are really close friends."
After making his first career start against No. 1 Notre Dame and holding his own in the 22-13 loss, Wittek appeared poised to be the promising successor to Barkley. But after a struggling performance in the 21-7 Sun Bowl loss to Georgia Tech, the quarterback battle appears to be once again wide open.
"It is what it is," Wittek said of his 14-of-37 and three interception performance in El Paso. "I'm actually very thankful to have had the opportunity. I learned a lot about myself and a lot about situational football." Wittek says he watched the film of the game thoroughly two or three times before finally putting it to rest. "I'm going to let that one go now," he said, now able to laugh about this dismal performance.
Even prior to Wittek's disappointing performance at the Sun Bowl, Kessler was confident he'd receive a legitimate shot at earning the starting role. "Coach [Lane] Kiffin said it's going to be a wide open competition this spring," Kessler said. "I truly believe that coming from him."
Both Wittek and Kessler enrolled early, in the spring of 2011, after signing their National Letters of Intent -- making this their third year of spring workouts. Since spending the time as understudies of Barkley, both say they are ready to step into new leadership roles, though admit it feeld different not having Barkley to look to.
"It's kind of weird now being the older guys," a smilingly Kessler admitted. "It's definitely kind of nice having that role. Hopefully the team can look at us and see that we do lead and they want to follow us."
"I've been here two years now, this is my third spring, and a lot of these guys have come to me individually and have said ‘hey, it's your time'," Wittek explained. "So not only do I take that, but I need to step up and lead this team."
New in the mix this spring is freshman quarterback Max Browne. Scout.com's No. 1 rated quarterback nationally, Browne will be taking reps with Kessler and Wittek to try to earn the role.
"All three of us are competing for a starting spot," Kessler said. "Both Max's are the best quarterbacks in the country and getting to compete against them everyday and go against guys on our defense that are so great – it only makes me better and only makes our team better."
"I feel very confident," Wittek said. "I think experience can only help you. Good, bad, indifferent. I was out there. I was in the heat of battle and learned a lot about myself so I am looking forward to it."
After both admit to the battle that is looming on the field, Kessler and Wittek walked down the All-American walkway together into the John McKay Center. Both no doubt wanting to be the starting quarterback who could soon have his All-American plaque cemented to the wall -- both knowing only one of them will win the chance to get there.
"It's go time," said Kessler. "That's why you come here though."
USC kicks off spring practices on Tuesday. The spotlight of spring drills will be on the quarterback battle. Will Cody Kessler or Max Wittek take over for the departed Matt Barkley? Or... does freshman Max Browne win the job?
USC redshirt sophomores to start battling Tuesday...