USC Coach Clay Helton has named Max Browne as the team’s starting quarterback, the team announced Saturday, ending a months-long competition for the job with the redshirt-freshman challenger Sam Darnold.
Helton summoned both quarterbacks early Saturday afternoon to inform them and their families of his decision during a midafternoon meeting. It was, Helton said in a statement, “one of the toughest decisions in my college coaching career.”
“At this point, we feel that it is in the best interest of our football team to lean on the veteran experience that Max Browne has,” Helton said.
Browne, the former No. 1-rated quarterback in his class out of Sammamish, Wash., waited three seasons behind Cody Kessler before fighting off Darnold in spring and summer camp. Helton’s explanation specifically highlighted that veteran status as one deciding factor, an indication of how evenly matched each quarterback was in talent.
Browne gave up several more training-camp interceptions than Darnold, whose mobility was alluring. But Browne earned the job through a mastery of the offense, a willingness to attack on longer passes and a calm, smooth presence in up-tempo drills.
USC will have two weeks to muster behind Browne before playing Alabama, the defending national champion, on Sept. 3.
Browne never thought winning the starting job would take this long. He admitted this summer that he thought his path to the starting job was much clearer when he arrived at USC.
“I’m coming off a high school state championship, all the awards, and I’m gonna come here and I’m gonna win the job, and it’s going to be great,” Browne said, describing his thinking at the time.
But Kessler won the job, relegating Browne to a redshirt season. When Steve Sarkisian took over the following season, Browne again battled for the position but was repelled by Kessler for a second time.
Browne, a bench player, watched as cohorts, all ranked lower than he by recruiting services, played for three seasons and were drafted. Jared Goff, the No. 1 overall pick in April’s NFL draft to the Rams, was one.
“It’s funny, I Snapchatted him probably a month ago,” Browne said earlier this week. “I was in a parking lot and a guy had a ‘16’ Rams jersey. And I was like, ‘Oh, the time has come. A new man in the city.’ But I’m excited for him.”
Browne decided not to transfer. In the interim, he was named the team’s co-lifter of the year, an unusual honor for a quarterback. Teammates respected his quiet work ethic and the ease he displayed in assuming leadership.
Browne called Sunday’s announcement “a moment of realization that hard work and staying the course paid off for me.”
Helton agonized over the decision during training camp. He said it was constantly on his mind, which surprised him — at first, he didn’t expect a competition at all.
Browne entered spring practices as the presumptive starter, but Helton said Darnold would receive consideration. By the end of spring, Darnold had impressed enough to compel Helton to extend the battle into training camp, though Helton acknowledged at the time that Browne maintained a slight edge.
Darnold eroded that lead further in training camp. Browne began with more consistency, but struggled during USC’s first two scrimmages. In the second scrimmage, his worst performance of training camp, he threw three interceptions, though two came on dropped passes.
He responded with one of his sharpest practices the following day. In the final scrimmage on Friday, Browne completed 13 of 22 attempts for two touchdowns, surpassing Darnold’s numbers for the first time in three scrimmages.
Darnold played unevenly at the beginning of training camp but steadily improved. By his final practices, he’d become aggressive, capable of hitting long strikes.
Darnold now finds himself in Browne’s position, potentially facing two more seasons of waiting before he gets another chance to start. He said this summer that he won’t consider transferring.
“I can guarantee you that,” Darnold said. “That won’t happen.”
In USC’s statement, Darnold reiterated his commitment to USC.
“I have no desire to leave USC, this is the place for me,” the statement said.
Helton said he plans to use Darnold in special offensive packages at times this season, but he said the starting position won’t be contested from week to week. Browne will have room for mistakes.
“I’ve always thought that you give the opportunity to the quarterback to show what he can do,” Helton said.
Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand