Two years ago, USC coach Clay Helton named Max Browne the starting quarterback over Sam Darnold on the third Saturday of fall camp, two weeks before the opener.
Saturday marked the same day on the college football calendar, and the Trojans were staging their second scrimmage, or, as Helton likes to call it, “preseason game.” In last week’s scrimmage, true freshman quarterback JT Daniels didn’t just back up his five-star hype. He threw kerosene on it, tossing the ball all over the Coliseum for four touchdown passes. A light week of practice ensued, and Helton stuck with the public stance that there had been no separation between Daniels, Jack Sears and Matt Fink.
Saturday’s scrimmage was a prime opportunity for Daniels to pull away, but due to a variety of factors, it didn’t work out that way.
“My gut tells me it’s going to take one more week,” Helton said.
As it turned out, Saturday was never going to be a decision day. USC’s offensive coaches called a run-heavy set of plays that featured more work for walk-ons Quincy Jountti and Ben Easington than Stephen Carr and Aca’Cedric Ware. On both sides of the ball, the Trojans trotted out a lot of names that the casual fans likely won’t know for a few years. The pass plays were mostly quick reads and screens. Unlike last week, USC did not give the quarterbacks a two-minute drill to end the scrimmage because the Trojans ran out of healthy offensive tackles. There simply wasn’t much to see.
Afterward, Helton credited the defense for doing a much better job than last week of limiting big plays.
“You saw the first scrimmage,” Helton said. “That was something that really stood out, something that I think defensively they took to heart. I told the offense, some days you’re going to have to grind it out, sometimes the run game has go to go and you move the sticks. Sometimes it’s going to be three- to four-play drives, sometimes it’s got to be 14-play drives.”
Daniels has been USC’s best quarterback in camp. He was the sharpest in the first scrimmage, going 10 of 12 with the four touchdowns, three of which went to high school teammate Amon-ra St. Brown. He did not do anything spectacular Saturday, but he completed seven of nine passes while Fink was three of nine. Sears only attempted two passes, both of which were completions to impressive true freshman Devon Williams on the day’s last series.
Only Helton and his assistants know what he still needs to see from Daniels before USC’s opener against Nevada Las Vegas on Sept. 1.
In three seasons as USC’s coach, Helton has had to navigate two quarterback battles. This is not a large sample size, and the 2016 version was a totally different scenario. Yet, it is the only point of comparison — and one that carries with it painful memories for Trojan fans, many of whom use it as a reason to question Helton’s “gut.”
He chose Browne, and USC lost to Alabama in embarrassing fashion 52-6. They lost two weeks later at Stanford, 27-10. Helton made the switch to Darnold. Then, the Trojans lost a tough one to Utah and rattled off nine straight wins, finishing with a thrilling Rose Bowl victory over Penn State.
Some USC fans can’t let go of the “what if?” Nobody thinks Darnold was worth 47 points against the Crimson Tide. But maybe the Trojans wouldn’t have lost to Stanford or Utah if Darnold had gotten the starting role out of camp? Maybe they would have won the Pac-12 South and gotten a chance at Washington in the league championship game for a spot in the College Football Playoff?
There are plenty of reasons, though, why this is not likely to be Max Browne 2.0. Helton chose Browne because he had the experience of three years in the program and much more of a pedigree as a prospect than Fink or Sears. Browne, like Daniels, came to USC the Gatorade National Football Player of the Year. He had put in his time and was the safer play to take on a dominant team like Alabama in the opener.
This year, USC starts with an opener that seems suited for getting a young guy some confidence. Plus, none of the Trojans’ quarterbacks brings any meaningful game experience into September. And in this case, it is Daniels, the youngest of the three, that has the most pedigree.
Helton has been clear about two things since camp started: Age will not be a factor, and he will likely make a decision in the week before the season starts. All he is doing by not naming a starter is keeping his word.
But for USC fans hoping for Daniels to get the nod, it looks like another long week ahead.