USC’s Max Browne, willing to wait for it, has two weeks to make patience pay off
Max Browne was sitting outside USC’s campus center one day this summer, red Razor scooter folded near his feet, talking about transferring.
“You kind of get in that mind-set that, shoot, I’ve gotta play now,” Browne was saying. “We’re in the world of: if you’re not playing now, you’re transferring.”
This, to be clear, is Browne explaining why he has not transferred. Teammates closest to Browne, the redshirt junior quarterback, say he is analytical and clear-eyed, not given to the pressures of convention. Browne calls it being calculated. And his calculations have never spit out a school other than USC, despite a culture he says entices players toward a clearer depth chart elsewhere.
His calculations have led him to patience.
Whatever happens during this training camp, the most significant of Browne’s college career, his legacy at USC will be defined by that patience. The prized recruit has sat for three seasons while cohorts have decamped for the NFL. Jared Goff was in Browne’s 2013 class, more than 100 spots down most recruiting lists. He will share the Coliseum this season, playing for the Rams.
Browne, meanwhile, is battling a challenge from redshirt freshman Sam Darnold for the Trojans’ starting job. Coach Clay Helton said Browne had a slight edge after spring practice, but the competition remains tight. Receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster has been trying to tease out signs of the coaches’ leanings. He’s been unsuccessful.
Helton plans to name a starter on Aug. 20, two weeks before the season opener against Alabama in Arlington, Texas. So, for about two more weeks, Browne will perform a familiar task. He will wait.
Sitting outside, Browne gestured to a nearby table. It was the spot where he’d retreated more than four years ago, when his future was clearer. Matt Barkley and Browne ate lunch there just after Browne had received a scholarship offer from USC as a high school junior. Barkley pitched him on the school, and they discussed Browne’s potential.
The recruiting services at the time gushed. Browne figured he’d arrive at USC with, in his words, “a high school state championship, all the awards,” and play so well that Lane Kiffin would have to grant him the starting job.
That wasn’t ego, Browne’s early roommates said. At USC, Browne has been comfortable keeping a low profile and has lived mostly with walk-ons. Defensive tackle Khaliel Rodgers remembers attending a recruiting showcase in Atlanta with Browne. Rodgers expected a big head. Then Rodgers met him.
“He didn’t even have a smartphone,” Rodgers said, laughing. “So I’m just like, this dude, there’s no way he can be big-headed.”
But expectations for Browne had congealed at around the time he met with Barkley, when a recruiting analyst for Scout.com gathered five men in his parents’ living room in Georgia to settle on the year’s recruiting rankings. Over ribs, brisket and coffee, as described by the Seattle Times, the men watched hours of film until they felt comfortable enough to bestow on Browne a title: best high school quarterback in the nation. Most other recruiting services agreed. Browne was now the best big thing.
The tag followed him to USC from Skyline High in Sammamish, Wa. Years later, his recruiting ranking still appears in many news stories about him. It became like an extra appendage, often getting in the way.
“You expect yourself to win, and in some regard I felt like people expected me to win some of those jobs, with all the rankings and whatever I came with,” Browne said. “I mean, in hindsight, that doesn’t really mean anything.”
Browne played fine upon arriving on campus, just not well enough to win the job. He redshirted. Then Kiffin was fired, and Steve Sarkisian took over. Browne thought he’d have another chance to earn the job from Cody Kessler. Kessler won it again, cementing Browne as a backup for two more seasons.
Zach Helfand and Lindsey Thiry recap opening day of USC training camp as Max Browne and Sam Darnold compete to be the starting quarterback.
Whenever he returned home, people bombarded Browne with questions. When are you going to play? What’s the deal? Trying to find answers, he said, grew tiresome.
“I always thought I was a mentally tough guy, like that I could roll with the punches,” Browne said. “But you lose those battles, and I think I didn’t anticipate how much that would wear on me.”
Offensive lineman Nico Falah, a freshman-year roommate, said, “You could tell it was bothering him because, you know, he was the No. 1 quarterback out of high school. He was used to stardom.”
Browne talked through his frustration, said Jeff Miller, one of his closest friends and a former USC walk-on. That was typical. He organized his thoughts aloud. Doing so released some pressure, Miller said, and prevented sulking. Instead of resentment, he worked. By 2014, Browne was named the team’s co-lifter of the year.
“How many times have you ever seen a quarterback get lifter of the year?” Miller asked.
Teammates respected Browne’s quiet toil. When Kessler graduated, despite the open question at quarterback, Browne became the team’s unquestioned leader. Teammates praised the efficient players-only practices he ran in the summer. He was mature and sweated details.
During one infernally hot session, someone brought a case of Powerade. The players chugged through gallons’ worth and dumped the empties on the sidelines. After everyone left, Browne stayed, alone, to clean up. The potential next starting quarterback at USC plucked bottles from the turf while a middle-aged woman ran laps around the track.
Even when there wasn’t a mess to clean up, he and Darnold were often the last players to leave practices, each staying to tune up mechanics, timing or snap exchanges.
Helton believes the competition will spur improvement. So far, Smith-Schuster said, Browne has a finer touch on deep throws. Darnold has shown better accuracy on short passes. Browne has more mastery of schemes. Darnold is more mobile. Helton’s philosophy may be reaping results: Browne even looked Darnold-esque on one play.
“I saw Max run as fast as I’ve ever seen him run yesterday and gain 15 yards,” Helton said on Saturday.
Browne has stayed this long. Would he leave if he didn’t win the job?
“I mean, obviously, that’s a thought you try to not think about,” Browne said. “But I’m a calculated guy, so you’re definitely aware of all the factors at play.”
Browne said he is anticipating being the starter. If the question of transferring “ever comes to the forefront, I’ll deal with it then,” he said.
Miller said he and Browne never discussed his transferring. Browne, Miller said, believed that “if you’re holding that in your back pocket as a trump card, you’re not really bought in all the way. So how are you going to be a leader?”
Browne kept finding reasons to stay. A new coaching staff took over. He was graduating early. He looked forward to his MBA. He joined a fraternity, enjoyed his classes, loved living in Los Angeles.
Around Browne’s table, some students noticed his presence but paid him little mind. A fountain bubbled. Someone played an outdoor piano. Browne looked up. He hadn’t come to USC just for football, he reminded.
“I always thought I had a good gig, I thought my worst-case scenario was never that bad,” Browne said, surveying the scene. “I finish up early and graduate early, and, shoot, I got two years to go out here and ball out.”
“It’s a good little gig I got here,” Browne said again, only this time, finally, it was football on his mind.
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