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Max Browne has the edge, but USC’s quarterback competition is ongoing

Redshirt junior Max Browne did as expected this spring and summer: earn the starting quarterback position.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Life could not have been going much better for Max Browne as he was summoned to his high school auditorium. But he was heading, unknowingly, into an ambush.

During his senior season at Skyline High in Sammamish, Wash., Browne had passed for 4,526 yards and 49 touchdowns, with just five interceptions. His team had won the state championship.

Browne poked his head into the auditorium. His classmates jumped up and cheered. From behind a door, out popped Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, holding a trophy: Browne had been chosen as the national player of the year by Gatorade.

Browne topped most of the quarterback recruiting lists that season, and some analysts said it wasn’t even close. Browne hadn’t played a snap for USC, and already an NFL quarterback was visiting him to celebrate.

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And then? USC fans didn’t see much of Browne. He redshirted his freshman season. Browne waited. Then he couldn’t win the starting job from Cody Kessler. Browne waited some more.

It won’t be until Saturday, in USC’s spring game, that Browne will finally lead the offense — albeit during a dressed-up scrimmage. The opportunity could be brief. Browne has maintained an edge over redshirt freshman Sam Darnold, but Coach Clay Helton hasn’t named a starter.

“I’ll just be honest, I don’t think there’s a huge gap between the quarterbacks right now,” Helton said this week.

It has been an unusually long wait for a former five-star recruit. Browne, a redshirt junior, has watched as other quarterbacks in his class have left for the NFL or developed into Heisman contenders.

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“It’s extremely hard,” Browne said. “Someone asked me a few weeks ago, ‘How’s it feel with Jared Goff and Christian Hackenberg going out?’ Guys that I was buddies with. It’s weird that they’re ending while I’m starting.”

Browne said he expected to start immediately, but his father, Mike Browne, pointed out that other USC quarterbacks have had to wait before blossoming.

“You look back at Mark Sanchez and how has that worked out for him?” Mike Browne said.

Helton indicated on Thursday that a decision between the quarterbacks might not come until summer camp.

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Redshirt freshman Sam Darnold heads into the USC's spring game as a candidate to start at quarterback this fall.

Redshirt freshman Sam Darnold heads into the USC’s spring game as a candidate to start at quarterback this fall.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

If Helton makes a decision sooner, it could favor Browne. Because Browne has graduated, he can transfer without penalty.

“If Clay comes out and announces Sam is the starter, I’m sure Max or anybody would think about transferring,” Mike Browne said.

But he added that his son hasn’t considered any options other than winning the job and playing Alabama in the opener.

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Browne has taken most of the first-team snaps during the spring. But Darnold has mounted a feisty competition.

Darnold has been in this situation before. Before his sophomore season at San Clemente High, he battled an older, more experienced player, Sean Donnelly, who, like Browne, had the early edge.

Darnold didn’t win the job.

“It bothered me every day,” he said.

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Instead, Darnold played at receiver and linebacker, and, after an injury to Donnelly, he took over at quarterback. The first game Helton watched in person, Darnold completed 13 of 13 passes for five touchdowns — in the first half. Helton told San Clemente Coach Jaime Ortiz he’d never seen anything like it.

Darnold has a big arm and is just as dangerous with his legs as his arm.

“He’d fit in at Stanford just as much as he’d fit in at USC,” Ortiz said. “He’s not a true running quarterback, he’s not a true pocket passer. He’s in between.”

Helton has framed the situation as a competition between veteran knowledge and young potential. Browne, he said, is attractive because “you’re not having to tell him a lot of things, he’s getting people lined up, he knows the assignments.”

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Darnold has been more of a creator.

“The thing about good quarterbacks is sometimes they might not go to the right places but the ball’s still complete or they still throw touchdowns,” said first-year quarterbacks coach Tyson Helton, the head coach’s brother. “That seems to happen with Sam. He may not be always right, but he makes it right at the end.”

It is unclear whether Darnold can earn enough confidence to start as a freshman. After one practice, Clay Helton gushed that Darnold had completed 94% of his passes — “an incredible number.” But Browne, he added, was in the lead.

So how could Darnold pull even?

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“I think one of the things is not having the quarterback coach in his ear all the time,” Clay Helton said. “At some point in time, we’ve got to play live ball.”

Developing that can take time.

After Tuesday’s practice, the head coach pulled both quarterbacks aside on the five-yard line. They spoke for several minutes. Then all three trotted off the field.

Had he made a decision?

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Not yet, Helton said. The competition would go on.

Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter: @zhelfand


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