USC’s backup QBs battle to be the man behind The Man—Matt Barkley

Cody Kessler and Jesse Scroggins saw it unfold live on television.

Max Wittek was on a practice field going through an individual workout when he heard the news.

It was Dec. 22 and USC quarterback Matt Barkley had just announced that he was forgoing a chance to turn pro and would remain in school through his senior season.

While the decision brought wild cheers from USC fans — and a giddy grin from Coach Lane Kiffin — the three young players who would have competed to replace Barkley indulged in a moment of reflection.

“I was like, ‘Oh, man,’” said Kessler, a redshirt freshman. “But I was happy for him because he’s such a great guy to be around and learn from.”

Scroggins, a third-year sophomore, said he had similar thoughts.

“As a competitor, I went, ‘OK, that’s another year,’” he said. “But that’s another year to grow and learn something, another tool that I can gain.”

Wittek, a redshirt freshman, barely flinched.

“I just kind of carried on,” he said.

Had Barkley bolted to the NFL, this year’s spring practice would have been the most compelling at USC since 2009, when Barkley arrived as a January enrollee in the wake of Mark Sanchez’s early exit to the pros. Those 15 workouts featured Barkley, Aaron Corp and Mitch Mustain engaging in a daily battle to gain the upper hand heading into summer, a competition that was tracked pass-by-pass by one website.

That kind of scrutiny may be in play next spring if Barkley emerges from the 2012 season unscathed and is preparing for the NFL draft a year from now.

In the meantime, Kessler, Wittek and Scroggins are competing to be his backup, a step to perhaps becoming Barkley’s successor.

Kessler and Wittek will get ample opportunity to show how they have progressed when the Trojans practice and scrimmage Saturday at the Coliseum. Scroggins is not expected to fully participate because of a hip injury, the latest in a series of setbacks.

Clay Helton, USC’s quarterbacks coach, said the trio is constantly evaluated on decision-making, timing and accuracy as well as field generalship.

Helton’s message has been the same as last year: Compete with Barkley and push to be better than he is every day on the practice field.

“If you get that one opportunity,” Helton said, “you better make the most of it.”

Unlike in the previous two seasons, Barkley did not sit out a game because of injury last fall. He played every meaningful snap while leading the Trojans to a 10-2 record.

That allowed Kiffin to redshirt Kessler and Wittek, who traveled to road games and got an overview of the experience. Scroggins played a few snaps against Washington.

Through five spring workouts, the 6-foot-1, 210-pound Kessler and the 6-4, 225-pound Wittek have demonstrated improved arm strength and growth in the system.

A year ago, they were early enrollees trying to find their way. Now, they sound like seasoned veterans.

“I definitely know the playbook,” Kessler said. “It makes for quicker timing and getting up to the line of scrimmage and calling the protections.”

Said Wittek: “I feel great in terms of command of the huddle and the way that I’m throwing the ball. I feel bigger and stronger.”

Scroggins also has improved — on Thursday he was tossing 70-yard passes after practice — but his inactivity because of injuries has allowed Kessler and Wittek to take hundreds of additional reps and close any advantage Scroggins might have had as an older player.

“He’s had some bad breaks,” Helton said.

The 6-2, 210-pound Scroggins, who came to USC from Lakewood High in 2010, suffered a thumb injury during a training-camp scrimmage last summer and was sidelined for more than a month after surgery. In February, Kiffin said Scroggins was facing academic issues, and he has been held out of most drills because of a hip impingement. He also spent a full practice last week rolling across the turf as punishment for being late to a weightlifting workout.

But Scroggins said he would be ready to compete when cleared by doctors.

“No more setbacks for me,” he said.

Barkley is not expected to play much in spring scrimmages as coaches try to lessen the possibility of injury.

The young quarterbacks said Barkley continues to mentor them — but with recognition that they are no longer rookies.

“He’s always there giving us tips and reminders and staying in our ear,” Wittek said. “But I feel like he’s backed off a little bit.

“He realizes we have a year under our belts. We’re a year smarter and more confident.”

Now, they have to prove it.