Minutes after his first practice in Graham Harrell’s offense, USC sophomore quarterback Jack Sears fielded the question on everyone’s mind as spring football began for the Trojans: Is the stated competition at quarterback a real thing?
“I sure hope so,” Sears said. “We’re going to see how that plays out, but I really hope it is.
“They’ve sat down with everybody, and they’ve talked to us, and they’ve explained it to us, but that’s a little bit above my pay grade. That’s for the big guy over there.”
The big guy, of course, is USC coach Clay Helton, who in fall camp named then-freshman JT Daniels the starter for 2018 over Sears and Matt Fink. Daniels was a five-star prospect who chose to skip his senior year at Santa Ana Mater Dei High to join the Trojans with the hope of replacing No. 3 overall NFL draft pick Sam Darnold. The 18-year-old proceeded to firmly outplay Sears and Fink in scrimmage situations after just a few months on USC’s campus.
It was impressive, but his first season as a starter became a long slog. In the middle of the struggle, Daniels and Fink were injured, which led to Sears getting the nod against Arizona State on Oct. 27 at the Coliseum. USC lost 38-31, but Sears led a spirited comeback attempt in the second half, showing enough to convince some observers of the program that he deserved more time to show what he could do.
But Daniels came back as starter the next week at Oregon State and played the rest of the snaps for the Trojans as they lost their last three and finished 5-7. Daniels showed promise in stretches but could not find consistency from half to half, ultimately taking the lumps that should have been predictable for a freshman starting in the Pac-12 Conference.
Daniels’ best moment came in the first half against Notre Dame, when he completed 18 of his first 19 passes on the way to 349-yard day against the undefeated Fighting Irish. It was during that game, Helton said after Saturday’s practice, that his vision for the future of the USC offense to have a quick-passing emphasis began to crystallize.
“I just felt what our offense could become,” Helton said. “Just as a play-caller, you look up and you had almost 260 yards in the passing game in one half. You’re going, ‘OK, this group could be truly special.’ I needed to step back, I wanted to bring a great passing-game mind in that could continue it, and look what we found in Graham. But the Notre Dame game was a huge reason why we went down this road.”
Would Helton really take all of Daniels’ on-the-job training and toss it into the trash heap, only to start over with Sears or Fink, players Daniels beat out just six months ago?
The reason to believe Helton would do just that is his trust in Harrell’s ability to pick the right guy for his system, a variation of Mike Leach’s “Air Raid” that incorporates more traditional run-game concepts than Leach’s version.
If Harrell prefers a pocket passer with the ability to quickly move through progressions and read defenses, qualities Daniels showed in that Notre Dame game, he probably will remain the most appealing option.
“I think it plays to the strengths that I have,” Daniels said, “timing and accuracy, excelling in the quick game and being able to take our shots when we can.”
If Harrell is looking for a quarterback with the capability to make plays with his feet, he will give stronger consideration to Sears and Fink.
“It’s built for everybody,” Sears said. “It has benefits for pocket passers, benefits for athletic quarterbacks, and if you like to play fast, it’s the perfect offense for you. We’re already playing at a faster pace than I’ve ever played at. We’re just going to keep speeding up, and that’s going to be exciting.”
Harrell, a former All-American quarterback at Texas Tech under Leach, appears to be going back to the basics with this new group, which includes freshman Kedon Slovis, who is enrolled for spring.
“Just do the small things right,” Harrell said. “I want to see them take proper footwork, going through their reads, do the things that we really harp on well. The footwork needs to be right. Their eyes need to be in the right place. If you can just produce that over and over and over, you’re going to play really well in this position in this offense.”
“You see he’s really, really true to his principles,” Daniels said. “He doesn’t waiver. He’s strict in what he believes in, and what he believes in works.”
Helton has been preaching to his players that every job is open for competition every day. The most eyes, as always, will be on the quarterbacks. If players don’t feel a fair competition is being staged at the most important position on the field, it will be natural to wonder if it’s a fair fight at any position.
Helton says he wants the quarterbacks receiving equal reps with the first-team wide receivers in spring ball.
“For me, I am going to provide clarity to those quarterbacks about where they stand at the end of spring ball,” Helton said. “I think that’s fair to them, but I don’t want anybody comfortable. At the end of the day, there’s a long time between spring ball and the time we start.”
USC cornerback Greg Johnson practiced again Saturday. Helton said Johnson has removed his name from the NCAA transfer portal. Johnson, who played a significant role early last season, should compete for a starting job.