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Column: Jaxson Dart’s unexpected rise could help USC lure a big-name coach

USC quarterback Jaxson Dart throws during the Trojans' 45-14 victory over Washington State on Saturday.
(Young Kwak / Associated Press)

Jaxson Dart is a true freshman.

“It’s mind-boggling,” center Brett Neilon said.

Neilon emphasized the point again: Jaxson Dart is a true freshman.

“I’m, like, dang,” said Neilon, a fifth-year senior.

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Neilon repeated the fact one more time for effect: Jaxson Dart is a true freshman.

“He reminds me a lot of Sam Darnold, to be honest,” Neilon said.

Only five days after Clay Helton’s firing, the future came early for USC, with Dart offering a glimpse of the promising future envisioned by the school’s administration.

Freshman Jaxson Dart threw for four touchdowns in relief, lifting USC to a 45-14 win at Washington State in interim coach Donte Williams’ first game.

Whether it’s Bob Stoops or Matt Campbell or someone else, whomever USC hires to be its next head coach already has a foundational player in the freshman quarterback.

Dart is a natural leader. He’s fearless. He throws, well, darts.

When starter Kedon Slovis went down with a neck injury on the opening drive on Saturday, Dart stepped in and delivered a debut for the ages, erasing a two-touchdown deficit and leading the Trojans to a 45-14 victory over Washington State at Martin Stadium.

His 391 yards passing were the most ever by a USC player in his first game.

The 18-year-old Dart found himself celebrating the victory in the same place as many Trojans greats before him, on a stepladder in front of the USC band with a sword in hand.

There will be more festivities like this in his future, as Dart figures to be a cornerstone of a team that attempts to change the program’s downward trajectory under its next coach. However, his performance was spectacular enough to raise the question of whether he would also be central to interim coach Donte Williams’ plans.

Williams was evasive on the subject, declining to say whether Slovis would remain the starter when he returns to health.

Highlights from USC’s 45-14 victory over Washington State on Sunday.

“Obviously, I felt terrible for Kedon because he’s such a great leader on this team,” Dart said. “Really, I was just trying to lock in, don’t let my emotions get the most of me and kind of stay in the moment.”

There were some early nerves, with Dart’s first drive ending with an intercepted pass and the fourth with a lost fumble.

“Things were going a little fast for me at the start,” Dart said.

Neilon was struck by how he responded to his mistakes.

“He just kept going,” Neilon said. “He said it’s all right and made plays. He was poised.”

Neilon was particularly taken by Dart’s confidence, how the quarterback wasn’t afraid to deliver passes into quickly closing windows or wear a stripe of eye black that ran vertically over his right eye.

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“He has this certain swagger,” Neilon said. “You know this guy’s going to make plays.”

Which Dart did, delivering a deep ball over the middle of the field to Gary Bryant Jr. for a 38-yard touchdown with 37 seconds remaining in the first half. The score narrowed the Trojans’ deficit to 14-7.

Dart was hobbled for the majority of that drive, as he was shaken after he was hit by cornerback Jaylen Watson after a seven-yard run.

“He’s just a warrior,” Neilon said. “He’s a gamer.”

The Trojans leveled the score on their first drive of the second half, as Dart found Drake London in traffic at the goal line for a five-yard touchdown. Of Dart’s 46 pass attempts, 18 were thrown in London’s direction. London finished with 13 catches for 170 yards and two touchdowns.

A game that started as a disaster-in-the-making soon transformed into a blowout in USC’s favor.

Dart passed for four touchdowns; he also delivered a backwards pass to Bryant on Bryant’s three-yard scoring run in the third quarter. Dart proved something in the process.

“He proved to us that he’s got heart,” Bryant said. “We always knew he had the talent. Talent was never the factor. He always competed at practice every day. But he just had the heart to come out and fight when we needed him.”

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Williams now has a decision to make.

Slovis is expected to declare for the NFL draft when the season is over. Would Williams bench the junior to make way for a true freshman?

Williams is viewed as an unlikely candidate to become USC’s permanent coach. What if he thinks playing Dart gives him the best chance to win the job?

Dart’s unexpected emergence could prove to be a curse for Williams. His successor will almost certainly view it as a blessing.


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