The four quarterbacks, all vying for USC’s open job under center, stood side by side, in groups of two, each successive pass from one mirrored a second later by another. As JT Daniels laced an out route to one sideline, so then did Jack Sears to the other.
There was no pecking order, no presumptive No. 1. Everything at quarterback, as coach Clay Helton saw it, was equal.
As USC opened fall camp Friday with yet another highly anticipated competition under center, the approach at its most important position was purely — and purposefully — democratic. Each quarterback would get the same number of reps. Each would have the same chance to make an impression in the Trojans’ new Air Raid offense. As far as Helton is concerned, each of the four competing signal callers — Daniels, Sears, redshirt junior Matt Fink and freshman Kedon Slovis — will get equal opportunity throughout camp.
“It garners you extra reps, it garners us extra evaluation, and it allows guys to grow,” Helton said.
USC’s “two-spotting” approach, as Helton called it, wasn’t carried out only by quarterbacks. There were split walkthrough sessions, split team periods and split individual drills at most positions, all in the name of efficiency and tempo.
But at quarterback, where Daniels opens camp as the presumptive favorite to win the job, it’s fair to wonder how that equal approach might impact whoever does wind up under center when USC kicks off against Fresno State on Aug. 31. New offensive coordinator Graham Harrell’s offense requires impeccable timing between quarterbacks and receivers, and that chemistry requires as much time as possible to perfect.
“Running the plays so many times, getting that chemistry with the quarterbacks, them knowing where you’re going to be and you knowing where they’re going to throw the ball, it helps,” wideout Amon-ra St. Brown said.
For Daniels, a season of reps as the starter set him up for a potential leap in his sophomore season. Over 11 games as a freshman, Daniels was wildly inconsistent at the helm of USC’s uneven offense, flashing greatness at times and struggling with the offense’s complexities at others.
But a more simplified system and a year’s worth of experience have him set up to secure the starting job, assuming no challenger emerges. St. Brown said Daniels appeared “much more relaxed” and “poised” in Harrell’s system. Daniels was not available to speak to the media, but Helton agreed.
“Any time you get reps, that’s important for quarterbacks,” Helton said. “To be able to now have gone through a year, get those game reps, a spring training, a couple camps, you can see some confidence and some comfortability. It’s good to see. I think that’s with all quarterbacks. Reps matter. It’s going to pay off for each one of those kids.”
On Friday, as Helton reiterated his intentions for a democratic, drawn-out competition at quarterback, it was Daniels who took most advantage of his reps. As Michael Pittman Jr. streaked past a defender during one team period, Daniels uncorked a deep bomb down the sideline that hit Pittman perfectly in stride for an easy score.
The sideline exploded. Daniels pumped his fists.
Equal reps or not, it was the kind of throw that wouldn’t easily be matched.
Steele debuts; McCoy sidelined
While the NCAA still has yet to rule on whether USC’s two high-profile transfers, wideout Bru McCoy and cornerback Chris Steele, will be eligible to play this fall, both are eligible to practice during camp.
But only one made his debut Friday. Steele, a four-star recruit who transferred from Florida after previously committing to USC, was on the field for Day 1, joining a deep rotation of young cornerbacks who will vie for playing time during camp.
McCoy, who transferred from Texas during the spring after initially enrolling at USC, has reported to camp, Helton said, but remains sidelined with an illness.
“He’s on some antibiotics that will leave him off the field a little bit,” Helton said. “Hopefully his fever will go away, and he’ll be able to get out here.”