Eighteen months ago, when an unheralded three-star quarterback with no obvious path to playing time committed to USC, his choice was met with a collective shrug from the recruiting world.
Incumbent JT Daniels, one of the nation’s top quarterback recruits, was well on his way to being entrenched under center, and Bryce Young, another blue-chip passer from Santa Ana Mater Dei, appeared to be next in line.
It was unclear then how Kedon Slovis might fit into that picture — if he fit at all. Even some close to Slovis wondered why he would choose to be a Trojan, when USC’s future plans at the position appeared so well in place.
“We heard it from everybody,” Max Slovis, his father, said in September. “The implication was that Kedon didn’t deserve to be in that group. We just kept saying, ‘Well, we disagree.’ ”
There are still plenty of questions to be answered about the future of the football program, as new athletic director Mike Bohn will soon decide whether to retain Clay Helton as coach or take the Trojans in a different direction.
But as the regular-season finale against UCLA approaches on Saturday, there seems little doubt about where USC’s freshman quarterback — and the young playmakers around him — fit into those plans.
After earning the backup job in camp, then replacing an injured Daniels at the end of August, an unexpectedly stellar season has thrust Slovis to the forefront of USC’s future. Over his first 10 college games, Slovis averaged 273 yards per game and 8.7 yards per attempt, while completing almost 71% of his passes — numbers that exceed even what Sam Darnold was able to do in his debut season.
“As he grew,” Helton said Sunday about Slovis, “I knew our team would grow.”
That’s certainly been the case over the final stretch of the season, as Slovis has thrown for 400 yards and four touchdowns in three of USC’s last four games. The Trojans won those three games, all on the road.
Slovis’ ascent could set up an interesting competition for the quarterback spot next season, provided Daniels recovers from a torn knee ligament. Slovis and Daniels would each be sophomores in 2020.
Slovis is hardly the only Trojan whose development has been sped up out of necessity this season. Two of USC’s top three rushers are freshmen. Underclassmen have accounted for 72% of its sacks this season and 87.5% of its interceptions, while 12 of the Trojans’ top 13 tacklers are freshmen or sophomores.
In a season marred by injury up and down the roster, Helton cautioned early on that USC’s youth and inexperience might lead to growing pains. Now, the experience earned from weathering those early issues has the Trojans’ young talent turning a corner all at once.
Last Saturday, against California, Helton watched as a freshman center snapped to a freshman quarterback, who handed off to a freshman running back. Meanwhile, a freshman receiver turned in his first 100-yard game and a freshman defensive end recorded his team-leading fifth sack.
“That’s a special thing,” Helton said. “We knew this class was going to have to help us. We knew we were young, only having eight seniors. ... The future is bright here.”
At UCLA, where Chip Kelly has fielded his own fleet of freshmen and sophomores, that growth has been a bit less consistent. As the Bruins lost four of their first five games, Kelly also pointed to youth and inexperience as the main reason for their early stumbles.
On several occasions, Kelly went so far as to reiterate the exact number of underclassmen on UCLA’s roster to justify his point.
“When you look at 87 freshmen and sophomores, I’m not sure anybody else is younger than us in the country,” Kelly said after UCLA’s season-opening loss to Cincinnati.
Then, in mid-September: “When you got 87 freshmen and sophomores, it’s still a young group.”
And again, after a win over Arizona State in October: “When you have 87 freshmen and sophomores, the best thing I can say is that the baby Bruins are growing up.”
That growth will be tested at the Coliseum, when the crosstown rivals clash in what should be a crucial litmus test for both teams’ young talent. But while Kelly will presumably have time past this season to see those 87 freshmen and sophomores flourish, Helton may never see the full payoff from this season’s growing pains.
Against Cal, Helton got a brief glimpse of that bright future, as Slovis and the rest of the offense overpowered a stalwart secondary. As USC dominated in a 41-17 victory, it was a reminder of how much talent the Trojans will have on both sides of the ball next season, whomever winds up standing on the sideline.
“The best days for them are ahead,” Helton said.
Times staff writer Ben Bolch contributed to this story.