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USC will name either Max Browne or Sam Darnold as starting quarterback on Saturday

Coach Clay Helton is set to announce Saturday whether Max Browne (4) or Sam Darnold (14) will be USC's starting quarterback for the 2016 season.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Max Browne and Sam Darnold lingered on the field after USC’s scrimmage on Friday, squinting in the sun as Coach Clay Helton marched their way. Training camp was over. So, too, was their chance to influence USC’s surprisingly tight quarterback competition. Now the decision resided with Helton alone.

When he reached them, Helton told them they’d made him proud. He thanked them. Then both quarterbacks strode off the field and began their vigil.

Helton will again gather both players less than 24 hours later, on Saturday afternoon, along with their families, to name one the starting quarterback. He said USC will announce the news publicly shortly after.

Neither player is certain what the announcement will say. Training camp ended without producing a clear favorite. Browne performed consistently at the beginning of camp, Darnold dazzled late.

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Browne offers leadership and experience. Darnold provides mobility and the prospect of four seasons of stability.

Both the spring and summer camps “have been extremely hard,” Helton said. “I think both quarterbacks have a chance to be elite guys, not only here but in the future at the next level.”

Even before Friday night, all three admitted to restless nights.

Helton said the decision is on his mind “every second.” He said he has queued up film at 3 a.m.. He has re-watched each drill.

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Browne said the looming decision keeps him up at night.

“It’s on my mind 24/7,” Browne said. “That’s what you’re preparing the last four or five years for.”

Darnold said he has had trouble falling asleep as early as Wednesday.

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“I’m anxious,” he said. “I can’t wait.”

The nerves are not for show. Helton has labored over the decision. Did he expect that before the spring?

“Honestly? No,” Helton said.

He wound up with a fierce competition, “and that’s a credit to Sam,” he said. “To be this good this fast is remarkable.”

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Helton’s choice could reverberate throughout college football. That will likely only happen if he chooses Darnold, opening the possibility that Browne, a redshirt junior, may transfer.

Browne has exhibited fealty to USC by waiting for three seasons without complaint. He says he loves USC. He wants to finish his MBA program, which requires another year.

But were he to lose the job, Browne said he would examine his options, which are unusually expansive for a college athlete. As a graduate student, Browne may transfer before the season begins without sitting out. A student athlete must only be admitted and enrolled in classes at his new school in order to play, an NCAA spokeswoman said on Friday.

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Effectively, Browne would have a brief window to transfer to another school and play right away.

If Browne were to win the job, Darnold, a redshirt freshman, has said he wouldn’t consider transferring.

“I can guarantee you that,” Darnold said. “That won’t happen.”

The only question then would be whether USC chooses to tailor certain offensive packages for Darnold. Helton said he would consider using the backup quarterback in goal-line or short-yardage packages.

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But, he said, the starter will have leeway. Helton would only make a change after an injury or after prolonged struggles over multiple games.

“I’m gonna name one and allow that guy to be the guy,” Helton said. “I never want a guy to be looking over his back all the time.”

On Friday evening, Helton planned to consult with offensive coordinator Tee Martin, quarterbacks coach Tyson Helton and other offensive assistants. He also said he would gauge the opinion of defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast. Then Helton will deliver his final word.

“At the end of the day, it’s going to be my decision,” he said.

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The rest of the team will await the announcement. Players have taken pains to be diplomatic. None have publicly endorsed either quarterback. Safety Chris Hawkins, who has been defending both passers each day, offered a riddle.

“From my vantage point, who’s the better quarterback? Probably the quarterback with the number four in his jersey,” Hawkins said. (Browne wears No. 4 and Darnold No. 14.)

Hawkins was then informed cornerback Adoree’ Jackson had offered the same cryptic response moments earlier.

“He took it from me last night,” Hawkins explained.

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JuJu Smith-Schuster, USC’s top passing target last season, claimed he saw few differences between the players. He said that the receivers have passed time in film study trying to guess the winner. The consensus goes back and forth, he said.

“Every day I ask coach Tee, ‘Who’s the quarterback?’ ” Smith-Schuster said. “He’ll be like, ‘You have to wait like everybody else.’ ”

Quick hits

In Friday’s scrimmage Browne completed 13 of 22 attempts, including two-point conversions, along with two touchdowns. Darnold finished with five completions in a row, capped by his only touchdown, to finish 10 of 19. A caveat: because the first-team and second-team defenses often switch, scrimmage statistics aren’t analogous to those in real games. … Defensive tackle Noah Jefferson (back) participated occasionally in his first scrimmage and did not report any complications, Helton said.

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zach.helfand@latimes.com

Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand


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