If he were at any other school, with any other coach, Matt Fink understands he might not have been welcomed back. Once he entered the transfer portal, as he did this past April, that would’ve been that.
But Clay Helton had given the quarterback his blessing to look around, and Fink took his word. The USC coach allowed him to search for a grad transfer opportunity, and he stood by as Fink seemingly chose Illinois, where coach Lovie Smith told his family in May he would compete for a starting job. Then, when Fink reversed course and opted to stay in L.A., Helton welcomed him back with open arms. Just as he said he would.
“I have to give it to Coach Clay for the guy he is,” Fink says. “That relationship, that’s the reason why I was able to come back.”
It’s not a relationship all Pac-12 coaches offer their players. At the conference’s media day last month, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham made it clear he wouldn’t accept the circumstances Fink brought upon himself. Coaches currently have the option to cut off aid for players who enter the transfer portal.
“Most coaches take the same stance that we do,” Whittingham said. “If you go to the portal, then you’re done here. There’s no coming back. It’s not shop yourself around, if I get a better deal, take it; if not, I’ll come back.”
But for Fink, who would’ve been immediately eligible at Illinois, that’s exactly how it worked out. And now, as fall camp winds down, he’s still competing for the starting quarterback job that he was searching for this past spring.
The redshirt junior remains a longshot to unseat JT Daniels as USC’s starter under center, but Helton told him, upon his return, that he would still get a shot. And so far, as all four of USC’s quarterbacks have received mostly equal reps, that’s been the case.
“Myself, I’m very competitive,” Fink said. “I don’t give up.”
A chance at earning the starting job, however, was not the driving force behind Fink’s decision to return.
“I went on and checked out a couple of schools, from California, from out of state, just trying to go play,” Fink said. “But what it came down to was the guys on this team mean a lot to me. I wasn’t going to get that same camaraderie, the brotherhood, the togetherness, anywhere else.”
Still, he worried, at first, that those teammates might not accept him back. But like with his coach, that was never a problem.
“Everybody’s story is different,” Helton said at media day, “and this transfer portal that we’ve had, that’s the one thing that going into it I realized that each story and each case is going to be different. You’re dealing with 18- to 21-year-olds that have situations in their life that they need to figure out for themselves what’s best for them, and that takes time.”
Having gone through the portal — and returned to tell the tale, Fink hopes others might someday be afforded the same right.
“I think you should be able to enter and do what I did, check out your options, see what you have, and then still be able to stay where you’re at,” Fink said. “This is my home … and I know now I don’t want to leave here.”
Competition up front
For the vast majority of camp, USC’s first unit up front has remained largely the same. But as far as Tim Drevno is concerned, the offensive line is far from solidified.
“Our motto in the room is don’t worry about the depth chart,” the coach said. “Just do your job, and you’ll figure it out as you go.”
Except, USC already seems to have that part figured out. Left tackle Austin Jackson and right guard Andrew Vorhees, the only two remaining starters from last season, were already entrenched in their roles. In the spring, center Brett Neilon, left guard Alijah Vera-Tucker, and right tackle Jalen McKenzie established themselves at their respective positions.
Since, there haven’t been many other shake-ups.
Offensive tackle Drew Richmond, who transferred from Tennessee in the offseason, slotted in for Jackson while he was recovering from a bone marrow transplant. On Tuesday, he played some right tackle, while McKenzie cross-trained at right guard. In the case of injury, Richmond appears to be USC’s swing tackle of choice.
But without much of a position battle, one of USC’s most uncertain units a year ago appears to have become one of its most settled. Even if Drevno isn’t ready to concede that just yet.
“There’s a lot of things that need to be fixed,” he said.