Column: Kedon Slovis’ debut as USC’s football savior a winner

USC quarterback Kedon Slovis helped the Trojans defeat No. 23 Stanford in his first start.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

The new kid in the oversized baseball cap stood on a ladder in front of the USC marching band and waved a gleaming sword.

Surprised teammates raised their helmets toward him and delightfully howled, “Look! Look!’’

Bouncing fans chanted, “M-V-P!”

In the middle of it all, on a cluttered Coliseum field coming alive for the first time in forever, a woman wearing USC gear closed her eyes and bowed her head.


“Thank you, Lord, oh, thank you, Lord.”

Ladies and gentlemen, introducing Kedon Slovis.

Trojan fans, meet your potential season savior.

Clay Helton, your prayers might have just been answered.

On a muggy evening that began in wilting uncertainty, an 18-year-old freshman quarterback breathed brilliant life back into a USC football program that was suddenly fun again.

A few months ago, Slovis was excused from a USC spring workout to attend a school function — his high school prom.

Freshman Kedon Slovis passed for 377 yards and three touchdowns in an excellent debut start, and USC rolled to a 45-20 victory over No. 23 Stanford.

On Saturday night, in his first college start, Slovis danced circles around the powerful and experienced Stanford Cardinal, stunning the college football world, wowing his college teammates, infatuating his new college classmates.

With six minutes remaining in a dominating 45-20 victory, the student section actually sang, “We love Slo-vis!”

The new kid said he didn’t see them, but he saw everything else, throwing for 377 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions, missing on just five of 33 passes, dropping jaws everywhere.

Said cornerback Olaijah Griffin: “He’s amazing. He’s the guy. He’s the guy for sure.”

Said defensive lineman Drake Jackson: “I’m amazed at what he just did. He broke records, right? Did he break records?”

He broke records. Of the five true freshman quarterbacks to start for USC — a group that includes Heisman Trophy winner Carson Palmer — Slovis set the debut mark for most completions, passing yards and touchdowns.

Then there were the records he set for “aws” and “shucks.”

USC quarterback Kedon Slovis carries the ball against Stanford during Saturday's win.
(Associated Press)

“I thought it was pretty good,” he said of his debut.

He then looked over at receiver Amon-ra St. Brown on the other side of the postgame news conference table and quickly added, “But at the same time, how good is it with these guys? It doesn’t show how well I did, but how good a team we have.”

The Trojans indeed used an improving defense and nifty skill players to roar back from a 20-10 deficit in the second quarter to finish with 35 unanswered points, but the catalyst for everything was undoubtedly the ordinarily built, extraordinarily gifted Slovis.

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He began the night with a completed three-yard dart out of an empty backfield. He ended Stanford’s chances with a fourth-down completion for a dozen yards out of another empty backfield. From that first weighty moment until the last, it was his game.

Slovis was smart, he was bold, he was precise, he was dramatic. He was surprisingly composed, remarkably efficient, and, OK, I’ll say it, because I was there, he was Matt Leinart making his first start at Auburn in 2003.

“Really proud of a young quarterback … to play and do exactly what we said — to play with poise and don’t try to force things, use your athleticism and let your playmakers make plays,” Helton said.

Oh, but he forced things, all right. He forced his way into this moment despite low expectations and large questions. He forced USC back into the national conversation even though he once couldn’t get anybody to even talk about him.

A year ago, Slovis was only a three-star prospect from a Scottsdale, Ariz., high school where his greatest claim to fame was that Pro Football Hall of Famer Kurt Warner was his quarterbacks coach.

He wasn’t heavily recruited. He actually sent his video to schools in hopes of getting noticed. Give Helton credit for offering him a scholarship almost immediately after he saw another video sent by former assistant Bryan Ellis. USC and Oregon State were the only two Pac-12 Conference schools to make that offer.

Helton became a true believer when he saw Slovis outplay more celebrated recruits in USC’s summer camps before his senior season at Desert Mountain High.

”I’ll never forget him coming to camp, there’s a bunch of four- and five-star guys there … but exactly what you saw tonight was what you saw that day,” Helton said. “No fear, just poise … you just knew right there … trust your evaluation, you trust what you see, don’t get caught up in perception and stars, get caught up in production.”

Slovis left high school early and continued to impress USC coaches in spring practice, fitting especially well in Graham Harrell’s newly installed Air Raid attack. While the Trojans’ narrative was that he was one of the quarterbacks competing with the celebrated JT Daniels for the starting job, few really believed it.

Then, a few weeks ago, when he was named the backup to Daniels ahead of the more experienced Jack Sears and Matt Fink, there was more disbelief, even outrage because he had never taken a snap in college.

Finally, last week, a season-ending knee injury to Daniels forced Slovis into the middle of the Trojans’ opener against Fresno State. Even though he performed adequately, many looked at his limited resume and untested skill set and figured the season was over.

Guess what? The season is not over. The season, in fact, is just beginning. The Trojans are 2-0 and if Slovis proves to be the real deal, their upcoming four-game slog against BYU, Utah, Washington and Notre Dame now looks manageable.

“I tried to tell you,” Harrell said late Saturday night with a little grin. “The kid had a chance to be special.”

Recaps and scores of today’s Pac-12 football games in action.

Suddenly, this feared 1-5 start could be turned on its head, and Helton’s last stand could actually be another new beginning for his coaching career. That last bit of news surely will make some of his critics quietly cringe.

“We’re young and we’re doing that against Stanford?” Jackson said. “That’s pretty crazy to see what’s going to happen in the next three years.”

Protected by a strikingly improved offensive line that allowed just one sack on Saturday, Slovis did some pretty crazy things in slightly more than three hours.

Down 17-3, he lofted an Aaron Rodgers moonshot to St. Brown for a 39-yard touchdown toss.

”I saw that pass go for a touchdown and I thought, ‘Dang, this kid is for real,’” center Brett Neilon said.

Down 20-10, he hit St. Brown for five yards on third down and Tyler Vaughns across the middle for 29 yards, setting up Stephen Carr for a 25-yard TD run.

“There’s a large margin of error with those guys on the other end,” Slovis said.

Down 20-17, he led the Trojans on a 70-yard drive at the end of the first half with 60 yards’ worth of perfect passing that ended with a seven-yard pass that St. Brown caught before leaping into the end zone. It gave them a lead they never lost.

”For me, it was honestly … just don’t take it away from these guys,” Slovis said. “Just get it in their hands and let them do it.”

Watching it all was his father, Max Slovis, who hugged him outside the Coliseum locker room afterward and beamed.

“It was awesome to see him make his dream come true,” Slovis’ dad said.

Slovis’ dream? It was a night that summoned many dreams, a night of brandished sword, raised helmets, a quiet prayer, and a welcome to the new kid.