LOS ANGELES – Although Cody Kessler holds one of the highest-profile jobs in college football, his solid season as Southern California's starting quarterback attracted surprisingly little attention until he threw seven touchdown passes last weekend.
With memories of last season's circus still fresh, Kessler is just fine with staying slightly out of the spotlight.
"I'm a whole lot more comfortable this year," said Kessler, who won USC's starting job three head coaches ago. "Last year was obviously an up-and-down season, so I'm prepared pretty much for anything, any type of adversity that faces us."
The junior has thrown for 1,884 yards with 18 touchdown passes and just one interception in coach Steve Sarkisian's first season. He has the FBS' sixth-highest completion percentage (69.5), and he ranks 10th in passing efficiency (162.1) and 13th in touchdown passes (18).
He's hoping to keep his momentum going when he leads the Trojans (5-2, 4-1 Pac-12) into a difficult night game against No. 19 Utah (5-1, 2-1) in Salt Lake City on Saturday — even if he doesn't throw quite as many TD passes.
"I'd love to do that every week, if I could," he said with a laugh.
After winning 10 games last season as a first-year starter, Kessler has kept the Trojans in the Pac-12 South lead during another eventful season including two last-second decisions and major personnel losses for an already thin team.
Kessler finally got some individual attention when he set a school record with those seven scoring passes in a rout of Colorado, but he was most grateful for the congratulatory texts he received from Matt Barkley, Mark Sanchez and Matt Leinart, his predecessors in the USC pocket.
"It was kind of a surreal thing just to hear from the guys," Kessler said. "There's such a long tradition behind this school, and the guys that I got to watch before me, having them reach out and then get in touch through social media is a real cool feeling."
USC's offense was fairly conservative for the first half of the season under Sarkisian, but the Trojans let it fly against the Buffaloes. Although Kessler has a strong familiarity with receiver Nelson Agholor after they came into USC together, he threw his seven TD passes to four receivers, hitting freshmen JuJu Smith, Bryce Dixon and Steven Mitchell for four combined scores.
"When his teammates see him have success like that, I think it's uplifting for everybody," Sarkisian said. "Especially when the ball gets distributed the way it did and a bunch of different guys are catching it and scoring. But the beauty of Cody — you wouldn't know today if he threw seven touchdowns or he didn't play great Saturday. He just brings a really workmanlike attitude every day. He loves being out here with his teammates."
Kessler is in his second season as the Trojans' starter. Former coach Lane Kiffin couldn't decide between Kessler and Max Wittek until three games into last season, but Kessler won the job and kept it this year despite a push from redshirt freshman backup Max Browne, the nation's top high school quarterback two years ago.
"I never lost confidence," Kessler said. "I've had that feeling since last year. I guess since then it's got better, I don't know."
When he coached at Washington a few years ago, Sarkisian thought he had landed Kessler as a recruit until USC swooped in with a late scholarship offer. Their familiarity made the transition fairly seamless for Kessler, who already knew Sarkisian — the former BYU quarterback — would scrutinize his every move.
"Cody is an awesome teammate," Sarkisian said. "He brings a great deal of energy every day to practice. He's one of the first guys on the field. He's one of the last guys off the field. He's always engaged. Even when he's not in at quarterback, he'll be talking to the receivers or the O-line or messing with (linebacker) Hayes (Pullard) on the defense."
Kessler stays in regular contact with Barkley, the four-year USC starter now with the Philadelphia Eagles. Barkley, the leading passer in Pac-12 history, didn't mind losing one record to his former backup.
"He was like my big brother when he was here," Kessler said. "He taught me. A lot of stuff that I learned here is from him. He taught me the game here, and how to handle everything, and how to be off the field as well."