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USC coach Clay Helton says JT Daniels will start if he's healthy

USC coach Clay Helton says JT Daniels will start if he's healthy
USC quarterback Jack Sears throws under pressure against Arizona State in the second quarter on Saturday. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Jack Sears led USC’s offense to its most productive outing of October while playing his first college game, engineering a consistent, methodical Trojans attack once he found his footing.

Sears, the San Clemente High product, proved he could be a quality quarterback at this level, and nobody can take that away from him. But Sears could be headed back to a supporting role Saturday at Oregon State.

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Coach Clay Helton said Sunday that JT Daniels still has not cleared concussion protocol. If he does, Helton said, Daniels would start against the Beavers.

“I’m confident in JT and what he’s done for our football team,” said Helton, who said he should know more about Daniels’ status after Tuesday’s practice.

“I’m excessively proud, I’ll say it again, of what Matt [Fink] and Jack have done for our football team when JT has been out. That’s what you want to have: multiple quarterbacks that can walk in a game and be effective. I know Jack will prepare just as hard and be ready for his opportunity again, whether that’s this week or in weeks to come.”

Sears’ quarterback rating Saturday was 165.50. Daniels’ rating in seven starts was 125.34. Sears completed 20 of 28 passes for 235 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions without any experience.

Part of that can be attributed to an improved game plan using simple concepts to more easily get the ball into the hands of the Trojans’ playmakers in space. Plus, the running game perked up after two dormant weeks with the three tailbacks carrying the ball 22 times for 133 yards.

Helton said offensive coordinator Tee Martin’s plan for Arizona State should continue to work no matter who is under center.

“It mixed in some space plays with our athletes,” Helton said. “I thought it was an aggressive plan that, even though you’re with a quarterback that is making his first start, still pushed the ball down the field vertically. We didn’t hit all our shots. There’s a couple that still make me sick to my stomach right now, but it’s a plan that I thought was very effective and is one that I hope we will continue.”

The hope was that a live-game scenario would allow Sears to use his speed and mobility to create plays for himself and his receivers, and that’s exactly what happened after USC fell behind 24-7 in the second quarter. The Trojans went on a 21-point run to retake the lead.

“Tee did a nice job of moving him out of the pocket with some naked [bootleg] and some spread,” Helton said. “We knew how athletic he was. When you see it live and in person in game situations when these guys are tackled, they remind you of why we signed a kid with a very talented arm with mobility.”

Safety depth a major concern

With 11 tackles Saturday, USC freshman strong safety Talanoa Hufanga moved into the team lead with 51. Then, fitting a trend for the Trojans defense, he suffered a broken clavicle, ending his season.

“What an incredible freshman year that kid had,” Helton said.

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Hufanga began the year buried on the depth chart behind Bubba Bolden, Ykili Ross and Isaiah Pola-Mao. Bolden was hit with a school suspension for an off-campus incident and transferred. Ross decided to become a graduate transfer leading into next season. And Pola-Mao hurt his shoulder in the second game and had season-ending surgery.

Senior free safety Marvell Tell sat out Saturday with stingers sustained at Utah. USC responded by moving nickel back Ajene Harris to Tell’s spot and starting Jonathan Lockett at nickel.

Without Hufanga out and Tell still on the mend, the Trojans have much to figure out.

“We’ve got to see where Marvell is,” Helton said. “Right now safety wise, we have Marvell, we can use Ajene, we have C.J. Pollard and we have [freshman walk-on] Jordan McMillan.”

Etc.

Helton said right tackle Chuma Edoga left Saturday’s game with a hyperextended knee.

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