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USC quarterback Cody Kessler is on pace for record season

USC quarterback Cody Kessler is on pace for record season
USC quarterback Cody Kessler looks to pass during a win over Fresno State on Aug. 30. Kessler has surpassed expectations, and Trojans Coach Steve Sarkisian says the junior is capable of more. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Photos of Cody Kessler did not dominate the cover of preseason college football magazines or website home pages.

USC's quarterback was absent from projected All-American and All-Pac-12 Conference lists.

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While Oregon's Marcus Mariota and UCLA's Brett Hundley are staples of Heisman Trophy discussion, Kessler mostly remains under the national radar four games into the season.

That's fine with the junior, who handles questions about his profile with the same efficiency he dissects opposing defenses.

"The most irrelevant thing to me is all this preseason stuff," he said this week, adding, "You've got to win football games. You've got to perform on the field."

Through four games, Kessler has played beyond expectations, and he is on pace for a record-setting season.

Consider:

• Kessler has completed 95 of 132 passes for 1,107 yards. His 72% completion percentage is higher than Matt Barkley's USC season-record mark of 69.1% set in 2011.

• Kessler has passed for 10 touchdowns with no interceptions. He is the only major college quarterback who has more than 106 attempts without an interception.

• Kessler has a career completion percentage of 67.3%. Matt Leinart holds the USC career record at 64.8%

"It's been going good," Kessler said when asked to assess his performance this season. "I've made some plays here and there and I've also missed some plays that I wish I had back."

First-year Coach Steve Sarkisian, who installed an up-tempo offense, is pleased with Kessler's play. But he also cited room for improvement.

"He can play better," Sarkisian said. "That's the beauty of all this."

Last season, despite not becoming the full-time starter until the third game, Kessler passed for 20 touchdowns, with seven interceptions.

During the summer, he attended the Manning Passing Academy in Louisiana. The camp, run by former NFL quarterback Archie Manning and his Super Bowl-winning sons Peyton and Eli, attracts top college quarterbacks to serve as counselors.

Kessler said he roomed with Georgia's Hutson Mason, Michigan's Devin Gardner and Mississippi State's Dak Prescott. He also spent time with Mariota, Hundley, Baylor's Bryce Petty and Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston of Florida State.

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Before training camp began, Kessler said he hoped to implement the knowledge gained from competing against his contemporaries, and from observing and speaking with the Mannings.

"I don't want to go out there and try to do too much, overdo it and play outside my game," he said.

Kessler passed for 394 yards and four touchdowns in the season-opening rout of Fresno State. He passed for only 135 yards but led the Trojans to a 13-10 victory at Stanford. And he passed for 317 yards and four touchdowns in a loss at Boston College.

Last week, Kessler passed for 261 yards and two touchdowns in a 35-10 victory over Oregon State.

"He was really poised," Oregon State Coach Mike Riley said in a telephone interview. "He made some great plays a couple times when we had him wrapped up."

Clay Helton, USC's quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator, grades quarterbacks for decision-making, timing and accuracy.

Against Oregon State, Kessler's touchdown pass to tailback Justin Davis was an example of superior decision-making, Helton said.

"He read the coverage, there was no hesitation, and he got it to him with enough space to do something with the ball," Helton said. "And it equaled a touchdown."

Kessler also connected with Darreus Rogers for a touchdown on a 48-yard Hail Mary pass to end the first half.

"We face adversity and he's there to pick us up," Rogers said. "You got a question on the field if you're lost? He's right there.

"He's like an older brother to us…. It makes it more comfortable on the field to have someone like that."

Leinart, now a college football television analyst, noted Kessler's growth at extending plays with his legs. He cited an instance when he escaped an Oregon State player who was "wrapped around his ankles."

"He's always been excellent throwing on the run," Leinart said. "He's better this year."

An NFL scout concurred.

The scout, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized by his team to speak publicly about players, said Kessler could become an elite pro prospect if he continues to play well this season and next.

"He has the tools but needs to keep maturing as a QB mentally," the scout said. "He improved considerably from year one to year two and needs to keep that momentum going."

Twitter: @latimesklein

Times staff writer Sam Farmer contributed to this report.

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