USC football kicked off spring practice on Tuesday, and for the first time in three years, the Trojans will be hosting a quarterback competition that is expected to turn some heads not only going into the summer, but also potentially into the fall.
With the departure of Cody Kessler, it appears that head football coach Clay Helton, who is entering his first full season at the helm, will have to tap either fourth-year junior Max Browne or redshirt freshman Sam Darnold to start the team’s season opener against defending national champion Alabama at Jerry’s World come Sept. 3.
Whether Helton elects to go with Browne or Darnold, the USC offense is going to be in good hands — perhaps even better off than it was when Kessler was under center. Kessler ended his career as one of the most statistically decorated quarterbacks in USC history and led the Trojans to its first Pac-12 South title in 2015 but was always limited by his arm strength, which also restricted the play-calling ability for Helton, who served as the team’s offensive coordinator last season.
Fans always criticized former head coach and now-Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin for calling a plethora of bubble screens in Kessler’s first season behind center, which seemed to be a contributing factor to his ultimate firing. The past two seasons, we’ve seen less of it, but it has still been a go-to play call for the USC offense, especially with one of the most dangerous playmakers in college football — junior wide receiver Adoree’ Jackson — on the edge.
That’s when USC would become predictable, however, and in the process, it allowed opposing defensive coordinators to simply game plan for Kessler and his offense by taking away those plays, forcing him to test his arm down the field.
Take a look at the team’s loss to Washington. Against the Huskies, Kessler completed only 16 of 29 passes for 156 yards to go along with two interceptions — good enough for a dismal quarterback rating of 9.4. Granted, Washington had the best overall defense in the Pac-12 last season, but if they want to be elite in 2016, new offensive coordinator Tee Martin and the Trojans are going to need a quarterback that is able to exploit any defense on any given day or night in the fall.
Fortunately for USC fans, Browne and Darnold are basically opposites of Kessler. With Browne listed at 6-foot-5, 220 pounds and Darnold at 6-foot-4, 215 pounds, each of them certainly looks the part. Both of them also have rocket arms and are considerably more mobile and athletic, especially Darnold.
Thus, the quarterback transition that is now taking place is actually a positive thing moving forward for the Trojans, as they move into what could be considered a new era of USC football under Helton. Call it an upgrade, if you will.
Of course, the jury is still out on the intangibles that both Browne and Darnold have to offer, including how to read coverage and handle pressure in the pocket, in addition to leading and dealing with adversity, certainly in a hostile environment with limited experience at the Division I level. USC’s array of explosive weapons returning on offense, however, will surely diminish the growing pains in both the passing and the running games.
Players like Jackson, Biletnikoff Award candidate and junior wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, and the two-headed rushing attack of senior Justin Davis and sophomore Ronald Jones II made Kessler look really efficient at times, and they are expected to do the same for their new starting quarterback.
It’s already a tall order to ask a brand-new starting quarterback to learn a system with a new coaching staff and be expected to give it their best shot at the defending national champs, but it’s a test that will benefit them in the long run.
Since Browne is more experienced, with Darnold redshirting last year, it’s definitely his “job to lose” — his words exactly at the team’s first practice on Tuesday.
The competition will be healthy for both Browne and Darnold, but it’s also important that Helton handles it in an appropriate manner by not letting it drag on too long. As a lot of us found out the hard way a few years ago with Kiffin, a quarterback competition that extends into the early part of the regular isn’t the best of ideas.
Typically, the sooner the better is the preferred practice not only for the quarterbacks, but also the team as a whole, and there’s no doubt that Helton’s final decision will define him and USC football at least for the next couple of years to come.
Darian Nourian is a senior majoring in print and digital journalism. His column, “Persian Persuasion,” runs Thursdays.