Cody Kessler may have made a favorable impression in his backup stint as a redshirt freshman last fall, but he's hardly resting on his laurels.
Kessler knows there is much to be proven in workouts and spring practice as he once again competes for that same backup spot while attempting to make another early impression in the competition to succeed Matt Barkley.
"Last year when Coach Kiffin told me I was backup, immediately after, he said, 'Next year, it's right back open . . . It's right back to square one and you guys are going back and competing.' "
Kessler is embracing the competition.
"I'm coming in with the mindset that I'm on the bottom of the depth chart. You have to think that you've got something to prove."
Kessler has grown an inch since his early arrival for the second semester a year ago and now stands 6-foot-2 1/2. He also now has the advantage of familiarity with spring ball -- and most of his teammates.
"It's a lot more comfortable because you have the respect of your teammates," he says, "and they know that since you went through practice and worked your butt off, you're here for real and you want to play."
Kessler said his approach is hardly unique on a USC squad with sky-high expectations for 2012 and a steady core of veteran leaders. The team-wide intensity and unity "has stepped up a lot this year," Kessler says.
"We can go in the weight room sometimes and not even have the strength coaches say anything and you can see the seniors stepping up and leading us," he says. "They're just setting a great example for us."
One of those seniors is no doubt Barkley. When asked his feelings when Barkley announced his senior season return, Kessler admitted that he was "a little bit bummed" at first that he would have to wait another season for a chance to compete for the starting job.
Those initial sentiments changed, however, as Kessler considered the advantages of getting to learn from Barkley for another year.
"He really cares about us and you can tell he cares about how the team's going to be once he leaves by teaching me, Max [Wittek] and Jesse [Scroggins}. It's pretty awesome to have him coming back."
Although Kessler and the rest of the team will continue to be led by Barkley this year, one of his strengths Kiffin said he recognized right away was his natural leadership skill and command of the huddle even as a freshman.
Asked where those leadership traits come from, Kessler cited his experience playing football and basketball with others two to four years older when he was younger.
"I never really had a chance to come in and be intimidated," Kessler says. "Especially as a quarterback, you can't come in and let the guys see you as nervous or shy."
And as he learned a year ago, he could be a play away from action in any game, even if Barkley's durability and protection kept that from happening to preserve his redshirt.
"You don't know when you're going to go in. When I go in the huddle in practice, I want to be able to command it, be able to tell guys what to do and call the play without second-guessing myself."
The coaches have taken note. He was asked to host Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick on the prospect's official visit, something rare for a freshman.
The experience brought back memories of Kessler's own recruiting process that resulted in his enrolling early at USC. But as much as he extolled his USC experience, Kessler's main message to Cope-Fitzpatrick was not only to have fun with the process but to ultimately take ownership of the decision and do what's best for him.
"At the end of the day, you aren't just picking a college, you're picking where you're going to live for the next four years, and where you might end up living after. Just do what's right in your heart and what's best for you."
That's what Kessler did, following his own advice as he decided on USC.