LOS ANGELES — Marqise Lee can’t believe Southern California wrapped up training camp Wednesday without choosing a starting quarterback.
“This is crazy,” the Biletnikoff Award-winning receiver said.
Yet when asked to make the call between Cody Kessler and Max Wittek himself, even Lee acknowledges the difficulty of the decision facing coach Lane Kiffin.
“It’s 50-50,” Lee said, grinning. “I know y’all don’t want to hear 50-50, but that’s all I’ve got.”
Kiffin still hasn’t decided between Kessler and Wittek after the 24th-ranked Trojans’ final scrimmage at the Coliseum. Not much has separated the two passers hoping to succeed Matt Barkley over the past three weeks, and Kiffin hasn’t ruled out using both quarterbacks in games.
“We would like to have had it done a long time ago, but it’s not,” Kiffin said. “Off of just watching today, prior to going to the film, I don’t know that today cleared it up much more. Both guys did some good things.”
Yet neither quarterback did enough to secure the starting spot, leaving Lee unsure who will be throwing passes to him when the Trojans open their season at Hawaii next Thursday. Lee chuckled with disbelief at the idea USC doesn’t have a clear-cut starter.
“I’m still waiting,” Lee said. “I don’t know when Coach Kiffin is going to actually decide. Hope it’s by Friday, because that’s when we start our (preparation), but at the end of the day, I guess I’m going to be rolling with both until he decides.”
While Wittek started the Trojans’ final two games last season, losing to Notre Dame and to Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl, Kessler has seemed to be a bit sharper than Wittek in spring ball and summer workouts. They’re got roughly the same number of snaps in camp, particularly after freshman Max Browne was eliminated from first-team competition earlier in camp.
“I’m sitting here just like you guys — lost,” Lee said. “I’m going to continue to get work with both. If it’s not (decided) Friday, I’m going to continue to work with both until Kiffin decides. Even if he does decide, I’m going to work with both.”
Kessler started both halves of the no-tackling scrimmage with the first team offense. He threw two interceptions on deflected balls, but also made the game’s best throw on a picture-perfect, 55-yard TD pass to Nelson Agholor, the new starter in Robert Woods’ spot opposite Lee.
“I have no idea,” Kessler said of the decision. “I would like to say me, obviously, or I’d even like to say him, but that’s up to Coach Kiffin. … I’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time, and this is what I’ve been working toward. Being the starter is part of the goal, but it’s not the main goal. My main goal is for this team to win as many games as possible.”
Kessler has countered Wittek’s powerful arm and experience with superior mobility and decision-making, but Wittek’s big-play capability and improving accuracy always has the coaches’ attention.
“It’s only human nature to want to be as high on the depth chart as possible,” Wittek said. “No matter what happens, I’m going to continue to work, continue to compete. We’ve both taken the approach to every practice to look at it as our team.”
Kiffin’s reluctance to make a strong commitment to either quarterback suggests the competition’s winner could get a quick hook if he struggles, a possibility Kiffin hasn’t denied.
Kiffin doesn’t appear to be gaming future opponents by delaying his choice. He embraces USC’s tradition of big-name quarterbacks after coaching Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart and John David Booty during his previous tenure at the school as Pete Carroll’s assistant.
“Ideally, we do want to have one quarterback for the starter for the opening game,” Kiffin said. “We’re not really a two-system-quarterback program, but at the same time we’ve got to make sure we find the right guy. So I would not rule out anything, but that’s the same thing I’ve said for three weeks.”
The scrimmage underlined the Trojans’ need for more work, but Kiffin cautioned against drawing any conclusions from a 121-play workout featuring the first team against the scout team. Agholor had nine catches for 250 yards and three TDs.
Lee was pulled from the scrimmage early after falling hard on his right shoulder, which kept him out of four days of practice earlier this month. The star junior said he was fine, and would have stayed in a real game.
Before heading off to watch film with both quarterbacks, Lee acknowledged he hopes Kiffin decided on a starter before Friday’s practice — but won’t be surprised if he’s waiting a bit longer.
“I’ve just got to get used to their styles,” Lee said. “They don’t have that much different styles, but as far as catching the ball, I’ve just got to make sure I’m on the same page.”