It was to have been the biggest story of the USC football team’s training camp. It was almost worthy of a boxing-style poster:
In this corner: Bradley Michael Otton!
And in this corner: Kyle John Wachholtz!
Reporters stocked up on notebooks, pens and stat sheets. Every pass, every completion, every incompletion was to have been scrutinized, each practice scored.
Then, on Trojan media day two weeks ago, in less than one minute, Coach John Robinson made the story disappear.
“It’s quite possible we’ll go with a two-quarterback offense,” he said.
To crestfallen reporters, Robinson pointed out that two-quarterback offenses had worked wonders in the past, citing the 1962 and 1972 USC teams, which won national championships playing two.
So Otton vs. Wachholtz, apparently, had been reduced to a lesser story, to which one will start in the opener Sept. 9 against San Jose State.
But in case Robinson changes his mind, here’s the tale of the tape, retrieved from the trash basket:
Otton (pronounced: OUGHT-en): Height: 6 feet 6. Weight: 223. Age: 23. Class: Junior. 1994 statistics: 59% completion rate in six games, six touchdowns.
Wachholtz (pronounced: WAH-holtz): Height: 6-5. Weight: 235. Age: 23. Class: Senior. 1994 statistics: none (academically ineligible).
Both seek to take over for three-season starter Rob Johnson, now a rookie with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
And both, if Robinson really does use a two-quarterback offense, will be spared the pressure Johnson experienced a year ago.
“I want the responsibility for winning distributed throughout this team,” Robinson said.
“Last year, too much responsibility was placed on Rob Johnson, particularly when our defense wasn’t able to dominate opponents.”
Wachholtz agreed, saying, “There was too much pressure put on Rob last year. He was the guy who was supposed to do it all, and we needed a better total team effort. One day he said to me: ‘I can’t do it all. I need some help.’ ”
Yet Wachholtz and Otton would seemingly prefer the pressure of carrying the load alone. Neither sounds captivated by the concept of a quarterback relay team.
Said Otton, “It wouldn’t surprise me if [Robinson] does that, but I don’t think he should play both of us just because we’re both good. If our offense is clicking, that’s the quarterback I want in there, whether it’s Kyle or me.”
Right, said Wachholtz. “Whoever gets the job, he should leave him in there. No changes. If we’re moving the ball, he should go with whoever’s running the show. If the offense sputters, then you make a change.”
So far, neither has emerged as the quarterback.
Said offensive coordinator Mike Riley: “They trade off. They have good days and bad days. One guy inches ahead, then the other comes back. They’re absolutely even. No one could possibly make that call now [who starts the opener], based on anything that’s happened in practice.”
Both players show strong leadership, but in different ways.
“Kyle is more of a vocal kind of leader,” wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson said. “In the huddle, he’ll talk about stuff like kicking [butt]. Otton is more cool, and when you look at him you see the leadership in his eyes.”
Otton is a narrow favorite to start against San Jose State and even Wachholtz agrees with that.
“Brad played last season and I didn’t, so my guess is, Coach will go with him. But then I would hope I could start against Houston [Sept. 16].”
Now in his fifth year at USC, Wachholtz seemingly is the eternal star-in-waiting, a strong-armed quarterback who first had the misfortune to be in the same class as Rob Johnson and then, 18 months ago, told a lie and wound up in the academic doghouse.
In the spring of 1994, Wachholtz was assigned to deliver a speech in a required speech class. Instead, he submitted a doctor’s note, saying he had an appointment that day.
Wachholtz’s speech teacher checked on him and it turned out he had no appointment. Wachholtz was given an F for the class, making him ineligible last season.
“I was upset about it,” he said. “I told the teacher, ‘OK, you caught me. I lied. How can I make it up?’ She told me she had to report me to the student conduct committee. It went on and on, all the way to the start of training camp last summer, and the committee denied me.
“I got an attorney and he felt I had a strong case. I hadn’t cheated on an exam, I’d lied. I felt I should have been given an F for the speech, not the class.
“But when it came to suing my university--I couldn’t do that. I decided to leave.”
Wachholtz literally had the car keys in his hand, preparing to transfer to Colorado State, when that avenue closed too.
“I had the U-Haul trailer loaded up in front of my house and was ready to go when the phone rang,” he said. “It was Colorado State, calling to say two women volleyball players had just been denied admission who had cases the same as mine, and they didn’t want to get into a gender problem over it.”
And so he stayed, stood stoically in street clothes on game days, and watched Otton play when Johnson was injured last year.
There is a coolness between the quarterbacks. They are rarely seen together off the practice field. Yet the ice was broken between them last season during USC’s 61-0 rout of Cal, when Otton went 15 for 20.
“The first time the team drove for a score, the first guy off the sideline to shake my hand and congratulate me was Kyle,” Otton said. “That . . . was classy.”
Otton has had tougher challenges, he says, than trying to stave off Kyle Wachholtz. For two years, he tried to convert Italian Catholics to the Mormon religion.
“I spent my Mormon mission in Italy, and that was tougher than this,” he said. “In Italy, it seemed to get steadily harder, to get worse every day.”
He said he made one conversion, a 17-year-old Sardinian girl, whom he personally baptized.
Otton last year looked miscast. There has never been a taller USC quarterback and at 6-6 and 215 pounds, he looked as if he belonged on a basketball court. And when he heard Robinson call Wachholtz the strongest quarterback he had ever had, including his NFL days, Otton decided to visit the weight room.
“The strength coach told me he wanted to bring my weight up to 225 pounds, and when I got to 223 he made it 230,” Otton said. “I started camp at 225 and I feel much more confident in the pocket, like I can shake off a tackler.”
Otton is touchy about the strength issue, particularly as it pertains to arm strength. In a recent interview, he bristled when asked if he concedes that Wachholtz has the stronger arm, as many believe.
He paused, then said, evenly: “No, I do not concede that. I’m very happy with my arm.”
Otton transferred to USC at mid-year in 1993, leaving Weber State in Utah. He had played high school football for his father, Sid, at Tumwater, Wash.
He was a freshman starter at Weber, where he had a 500-yard game against Northern Arizona. But when the administration there began discussing a possible cutback in football expenditures, he decided to leave.
He committed first to Washington State, then changed his mind and chose USC. And since he was leaving a Division I-AA school for a I-A program, he was immediately eligible.
Even after Wachholtz became ineligible last season, Otton had little expectation of playing, what with Johnson around.
But when Johnson sprained an ankle against Oregon, Otton came on. He completed only seven of 15 passes for 79 yards as the Trojans were upset by the Ducks, 22-7, but went all the way in a 27-19 victory at Oregon State, completing 13 of 21 for 208 yards and a touchdown. Johnson went down again against Stanford and Otton completed 10 of 20 for 114 yards in a 27-20 Trojan victory, then went 15 for 20 against Cal.
In the 55-14 victory over Texas Tech in the Cotton Bowl, after Johnson was pulled in the third quarter, Otton went eight for 14, throwing an 86-yard scoring pass to Keyshawn Johnson.
Otton says Keyshawn will be USC’s most potent weapon this year, on some plays even without the ball.
“Our opponents are really going to be focused on Keyshawn,” he said. “Let’s say they have special coverages for him. OK, then what do they do on third and seven when we send Leonard Green out of the backfield? I’m really excited about this offense.”
Three seasons ago, USC was excited about Wachholtz’s future.
At Seattle on Oct. 3, 1992, USC was trailing Washington, 17-10, midway through the final quarter when Rob Johnson, then a sophomore, was knocked unconscious.
Reggie Perry, the first relief man, was ineffective.
Enter Wachholtz, with no game experience.
“My knees were shaking,” Wachholtz recalled. “I was scared to death.
“The crowd was incredibly loud and I had no idea whether I could play major college football or not.”
He could. Wachholtz moved the the team to Washington’s 28 where, with 1:32 to play, he threw an interception in the end zone.
“To this day, I don’t think that was a bad pass,” he said. “If we’d had Keyshawn that day, he’d have caught it.”
Robinson likes Wachholtz’s toughness.
“This guy is a pure football player,” the coach said. “If he had a sore thumb or something, I wouldn’t hesitate to play him at outside linebacker. He’s a very tough, physical guy. I’ve seen him get dumped in practice by bigger guys and come up off the ground after them.”