Jaxson Dart won’t start at QB? Why USC freshman might stay No. 2 behind Kedon Slovis

USC quarterback Jaxson Dart throws during warmups.
USC quarterback Jaxson Dart warms up before last week’s loss against Notre Dame. With Dart set to return, how much of a role will he have in USC’s offense moving forward?
(Paul Sancya / Associated Press)

Ahead of an unexpected debut that left fans clamoring for more from their freshman quarterback, a package had already been drawn up for Jaxson Dart in USC’s offense.

The hope leading into the Washington State game last month had been to gradually work in the talented young passer. A few plays here, a few plays there — just enough to give Dart valuable experience but not overexpose him. Coaches planned to first pepper the freshman in on third-and-short and red zone situations, where he could be used as a threat on run-pass option plays, “to give a wrinkle here and there,” interim coach Donte Williams explained at the time.

Instead, those plans were sped up considerably. The helmet of a Cougars defender collided with Kedon Slovis’ neck, knocking him out of the game against Washington State and thrusting Dart into action. He responded with the most dynamic debut for a quarterback in USC history.


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Oct. 28, 2021

Knee surgery sidelined Dart for the next six weeks, quieting any talk of a competition between the electric freshman and Slovis, USC’s third-year starter and two-time All-Pac-12 passer. But after a full week of practice, all signs point to Dart being cleared to play ahead of Saturday’s game against Arizona, which comes to the Coliseum riding a 19-game losing streak.

Williams wouldn’t offer much insight into what role Dart might play against the Wildcats, but noted that Dart “looks fine to me. He looks ready to go.”

So what might that mean for how USC plans to move forward with its freshman signal caller? And what about Slovis, whose season was expected to catapult the junior quarterback into serious draft consideration? Those questions could loom large with five games left and USC’s chances of at least posting a winning season slipping further out of reach.

“We’re gonna do what we need to do to win this particular ballgame, whether that’s playing two quarterbacks, whether that’s just one playing the whole game, whatever the case may be,” Williams said earlier this week. “It’s more for Arizona to figure out, not for us.”

Slovis is likely to continue as the starter, and Dart is expected to play some sort of role down the season’s stretch. That approach sounds simple enough on the surface. But as USC prepares for the possibility of playing two quarterbacks, a cursory look around college football this season suggests working in your talented freshman on a whim isn’t exactly as straightforward as Williams makes it sound.

At Washington, similar plans were in place last week to integrate freshman quarterback Sam Huard against Arizona. All season, the Huskies had been patient with their top passer prospect, but the hope was that Arizona would offer an easy transition. Coaches planned to let him have a full series to himself.

USC quarterback Jaxson Dart throws a pass against Washington State on Sept. 18.
(Young Kwak / Associated Press)

A bloody nose altered those plans, forcing Huard into action earlier than expected. He ended up playing six snaps, throwing one incompletion, before starting quarterback Dylan Morris returned. Even as Morris struggled to put away the Pac-12’s worst team, Huard didn’t get on the field again.

After the game, Washington coach Jimmy Lake said Huard would “get another opportunity down the road,” but he also didn’t rule out a redshirt. His tone suggested the Huskies would continue to play it safe with their young passer.

Other teams have been less cautious, but equally stubborn. At Florida, where fans clamor weekly for dual-threat freshman Anthony Richardson to lead the offense, coach Dan Mullen has continued to stick to his plan of splitting snaps between Richardson and the more experienced Emory Jones.

That approach appeared to reach a crossroads last week in a loss to Louisiana State, as Richardson replaced an ineffective Jones with Florida trailing LSU by 28 in the second quarter. Richardson, who played 40 snaps to Jones’ 37, proceeded to lead Florida during four consecutive touchdown drives in the second half.

The split has invited regular scrutiny for the 4-3 Gators. Nonetheless, Mullen continues to be coy about who will start Saturday against top-ranked Georgia.

USC will try to rebound from a loss at rival Notre Dame when the Trojans host Arizona on Saturday. Follow along for game-week updates.

Oct. 27, 2021

“We will play a quarterback on Saturday,” Mullen joked, when asked Wednesday.

Perhaps the most measured two-quarterback approach has come from Michigan, where Jim Harbaugh has peppered in five-star freshman J.J. McCarthy in a way similar to how USC previously said it planned to use Dart.

Though Cade McNamara has remained the starter, largely due to his ability to avoid mistakes, McCarthy has received 11 or more snaps in four of Michigan’s seven games. He has run the ball nine times, thrown 23 passes and handed it off 42 times. He has remained on the sideline throughout only two games this season, one of which was a narrow win over Rutgers.

The rotation has worked well so far, with Michigan undefeated heading into a rivalry meeting with Michigan State this weekend. But the question of how to handle the split will surely loom throughout the season — a reality Michigan offensive coordinator Josh Gattis acknowledged this week.

“That’s a very sensitive topic, that’s a very sensitive position, and that can make or break your team,” Gattis told reporters.

The stakes aren’t nearly as high in Los Angeles, where USC is far closer to missing bowl season altogether than contending for the College Football Playoff semifinals. But how USC deploys Dart from here could set the tone for his development moving forward.

The prospect of balancing two quarterbacks doesn’t seem to worry Williams.

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Oct. 26, 2021

But offensive coordinator Graham Harrell acknowledged the difficulty keeping two quarterbacks in rhythm, and Dart said playing in spurts would make it difficult to get a feel for the game.

“You have to be right on point,” Dart said. “You have to be super decisive. You can’t really miss a beat. I can see how that could be a little different, just coming in and out of things. But you just always have to stay locked in.”

That was the situation Dart faced last month in Pullman when he took over for the injured starter. Now, as the freshman returns to full strength, he faces similarly uncertain circumstances during the season’s final five games.

“I had no idea when I’d go in,” Dart said of his debut. “I just had to stay ready, stay warm. But everything came a lot sooner than I expected.”