Camp is finished. Classes have started. Team captains have been voted on and named. Game planning has begun for the opener against Nevada Las Vegas. The Spirit of Troy has been on campus for a solid week now, perfecting their piece of the game-day experience deep into the evenings. Everything is in place at USC except for one thing, and it just so happens to be the only thing that matters to anyone who bleeds cardinal and gold.
USC coach Clay Helton has his reasons, though, for not tipping his hand as to who is winning the Trojans’ quarterback battle.
“Because I want the guys to continue to compete,” Helton said. “They all need to progress, and I want to make sure I’m right too.”
If Helton wants to make sure he is right, that would indicate he has a lean. And, after two and a half weeks of practice, it would be worrisome if he didn’t. USC did not let the quarterbacks air it out during their scrimmage last Saturday, and quarterbacks coach Bryan Ellis said that this Saturday’s mock game is more about mental preparation than physical evaluation. The data that will decide this competition is probably already processed in Helton’s cranial computer, but it is his choice when he wants to see it come to an official end.
Helton said he plans to talk to the quarterbacks and their families at some point after the mock game and announce the decision early next week.
“Another week does not hurt, to be able to put us in that situation,” Helton said. “We’re getting plenty of work with all three, which is good, and I think it makes all three of them better players if called upon during the season.”
Based on performance in camp, true freshman JT Daniels would be the favorite to win the job. In the two scrimmages, he completed a combined 17 of 21 passes for four touchdowns. His pedigree as the Gatorade national football player of the year out of Santa Ana Mater Dei preceded him, but he has matched the hype as an 18-year-old spending his first months in a collegiate atmosphere.
Helton said he challenged Daniels on Monday during his weekly talk with each quarterback.
“He missed a couple throws [in the scrimmage],” Helton said. “So I said, hey, I really want this week to be about being precise. Aim small, miss small. Be accurate. He’s been a deadly accurate quarterback, and when you get in those live game situations, I want to see that accuracy.”
As long as Helton doesn’t name a starter, the reps still feel like they count. And Tuesday, Daniels threw two interceptions in three plays. It was shocking because it was the first time he had thrown two in the same practice since camp began.
“He’s done a great job protecting the ball,” Ellis said. “As far as live team settings, he’s probably gotten about 160 reps, and for this to be the first time he’s thrown multiple interceptions in those reps is pretty impressive. Today was bad. We gotta get better.”
Ellis said decision making, more than timing and accuracy, will be the determining factor. Tuesday he broke down where Daniels, Matt Fink and Jack Sears stand.
“Matt’s probably the furthest along running the offense,” Ellis said. “That goes with being older. I think he does need to improve on understanding protections and understanding where his hot routes are, those type of things. He does a good job in the run game.
“Jack probably needs to get better at just understanding the whole offense. He needs to understand really a lot more about the pass protection part of it.
“JT just needs to continue to get reps. I mean, the kid’s supposed to be a high school senior right now, so where he’s at I think is phenomenal. Obviously, he can continue to learn progressions and kind of perfect those things.”
Because of a USC rule prohibiting true freshmen from doing media interviews until the week of the first game, Daniels can’t comment on his performance. Sears and Fink both believe they are still in the running for the starting job.
“I feel like I’ve made a lot of strides this fall especially from spring,” Sears said. “Even when I have an off day, I feel like I answer back the next. I’m proud of where I stand and how far I’ve come.”
Sears, a redshirt freshman, was asked about the possibility he could transfer to another school if Daniels wins the job. He said he would “cross that bridge when it comes to it.”
Fink, a redshirt sophomore, was more definitive when asked the same question.
“I’m a USC Trojan for life,” Fink said, “there’s no doubt about it.”