Kedon Slovis sat in front of his locker Saturday night, his mind racing. Each passing moment felt like an eternity.
A few minutes earlier, before JT Daniels tore two ligaments in his knee in the first half of the season’s first game, Slovis was USC’s surprising young backup. Now, Slovis was the unproven true freshman starter carrying the weight of a proud program on his shoulders.
It was a surreal moment for an 18-year-old freshman to take in as halftime dragged on in the locker room. Teammates filed by, one after another, offering their support. Coach Clay Helton came by for a pep talk. Offensive coordinator Graham Harrell talked Xs and O’s, readying his new top quarterback as best he could. Each of them understood just how much hinged on Slovis’ success, even if no one said so.
As USC soldiers on with Slovis under center, that fact is impossible to ignore. In a make-or-break season, the Trojans will go as far as their true freshman quarterback takes them.
But Saturday night, as the enormity of those stakes set in at the Coliseum, quieting the crowd, Slovis yearned to get back onto the field and prove himself. He wanted to shoulder that burden. That was why he came to USC in the first place, why he ignored the endless talk about other recruited quarterbacks ahead of him in the pecking order, why as an overlooked recruit he stepped into USC’s spring practice and acted like he owned the place.
Now, here, by some cruel twist of fate, was the opportunity he’d been waiting for.
“That’s what he always wanted,” said Kurt Warner, former Super Bowl MVP and Slovis’ offensive coordinator at Desert Mountain High in Scottsdale, Ariz. “He wanted the expectations on his shoulders. He wanted to be pushed, to be great.”
As a sophomore, in his first season on Desert Mountain’s varsity team, expectations were low. Coaches understood that Slovis, with his impressive arm and ideal throwing mechanics, was the most talented option at quarterback. But a three-year starter stood ahead of him on the depth chart, and Warner ran a complex offense that required some seasoning.
So Slovis sat and absorbed as much as he could from Warner. The Hall of Famer wanted him to act like a big-time quarterback, so he sent him home with offensive scripts from practice to study. Warner told him to read them out loud in front of a mirror, envisioning that he was the starter.
By the next season, Slovis took the reins with a deep understanding of Warner’s offense. So Warner put as much responsibility on Slovis’ shoulders as his quarterback could handle, knowing he was Desert Mountain’s best chance to counteract its struggling defense. Sometimes, Warner installed plays as late as Wednesday or Thursday, before a Friday game, expecting Slovis to handle the adjustments.
“I told him all the time, ‘We’re going to ask you to do more than probably any other high school quarterback in the country,’” Warner said. “We’re going to expect you to live up to that because that’s probably the only chance we have. “
On cue, in his first varsity start against crosstown rival Chaparral High, Slovis led a bold comeback late. With only seconds remaining and Desert Mountain driving, he was crushed by a pass rusher as he threw a jump ball to the end zone. The pass was intercepted and returned for a pick six.
But a roughing penalty gave him one more chance, and Slovis took advantage. Stepping up in the pocket on an untimed down, he threw a rope to the end zone for a game-winning score.
“That’s it right there,” says David Sedmak, his head coach at Desert Mountain. “He’s got such poise. He didn’t let the disappointment get to him. He didn’t let the pain get to him.”
Max Slovis had come to expect that even-keel demeanor from his son. He’d never been one to wear his emotions on his sleeve. In most situations, he was slow to get comfortable.
At Desert Mountain, he quickly found his stride at the helm of Warner’s offense. But even as he flashed all the tools of a future college quarterback, few colleges seemed to notice.
All the feedback he’d ever received -- about his arm, about his mechanics, about anything -- was glowing. Still, the buzz was minimal. Those around Slovis, convinced of his talent, lost faith in the entire recruiting process.
“It was frustrating to all of us,” Sedmak said. “We all knew how good he was. But when you don’t start as a sophomore, then the hype isn’t going to find you as quickly.”
Sedmak and Slovis sent tape to every school they could. Slovis went to camps and junior days, trying his best to put himself out there. Max could tell his son was bothered, but he remained outwardly positive. It was in his nature.
“He was always confident and content that his time was going to come,” Max Slovis said. “They’ll see what I have, and they’ll find me.”
USC officially found its future freshman starter on a spring afternoon in Scottsdale, when then-quarterbacks coach Bryan Ellis sent a video of Slovis he took at practice to Helton. USC offered a few hours later, reminding Helton of Sam Darnold, the future No. 1 draft pick who also flew under the radar before USC’s offer.
It was one of only two Pac-12 offers Slovis would receive, and Slovis didn’t pay much attention to any other schools that showed interest from there. He committed soon after.
But his choice prompted questions from those around him. What about Daniels, the No. 1 quarterback recruit from 2018? What about Bryce Young, the top dual-threat option in 2020? For months, Slovis and his family heard the same doubts about whether he would ever get his shot to compete.
“We heard it from everybody,” Max Slovis said. “The implication was that Kedon didn’t deserve to be in that group.”
“But,” Sedmak added, “they don’t know about Kedon.”
They’ll know plenty more soon, as Slovis prepares to take the helm Saturday against Stanford. There are no plans to adjust the offense to account for his inexperience, nor is Slovis under any danger of losing his job for the moment.
“I don’t want him looking over his shoulder,” Helton said. “He’s going to walk out there and be the No. 1 quarterback.”
It’s an opportunity Slovis has been waiting years to take on.
“It’s not going to be an easy road,” Warner said. “It’s kind of a baptism by fire. But this is what he always played for.”