Covering a quarterback competition isn’t really that fun. Sure, it’s always interesting, even tense. It can be especially thought-provoking depending on how different the respective playing styles and assets are of the leading candidates. It’s the most important position in football, and therefore the most important personnel decision a coach has to make.
But at the end of the day, it still feels kind of weird.
Sports are all about loyalty and pride. My team’s better than your team; our fans are truer than your fans; this is finally our year; we’re going to win the national championship. Sorry UCLA, we still run this town. Hey Stanford, have you guys won a title yet this millennium?
When the competition becomes internal, though, it can leave fans conflicted. For the duration of summer camp, players’ challengers are wearing the same uniform and sleeping in the same dorms. Only one guy gets to be on the field at each position for the opening snap, and I don’t want to have to pick favorites.
I guess I would say I was in Max Browne’s camp from the start, but not because of any technical expertise. He’s a redshirt junior, now in his fourth year with the program. He’s patiently waited for his turn, and I hoped he would get it. No disrespect to redshirt freshman Sam Darnold, but I’m just especially sympathetic for upperclassmen rites to passage now that I’m a senior myself.
The announcement that Browne had won the job came with an exciting caveat, though. Darnold might still get his turn to run the offense sooner than we otherwise would have thought. This really could be the best case scenario for the Trojans, and not just because it satisfies my naïve, millennial everyone-gets-a-trophy sports hopes.
The differences between Browne and Darnold aren’t quite night and day, but they certainly bring unique skill sets to the table. Browne came to USC as arguably the most highly-touted pocket passer in his recruiting class. He didn’t maintain that same level of attention or prestige while serving as Kessler’s backup. A more impressive performance during spring ball could have won him the starting job much earlier; instead, he had to split first-team reps all summer. But nonetheless, he fits the mold of a USC pro-style offense signal caller.
Darnold on the other hand is a legitimate dual-threat QB. He’s both much more mobile and physically imposing than his elder counterpart—though listed as only five pounds heavier and one inch shorter than Browne. He brings much more upside to the table in terms of his versatility. He also came in as a very highly touted recruit, leaving some to wonder if it would be worth it over the long haul just to hand him the keys right away.
This was first-year head coach Clay Helton’s first big decision since deciding to turn off music during practice. Helton had to be thinking about the long term but primarily base the decision on who could give the team the best chance to win this season. Ultimately, he decided to put his faith in Browne’s leadership and experience.
It will be almost impossible to definitively say whether Helton makes the right decision based off of what we already know about the two, barring some sort of an inexplicable collapse by Browne under the pressure of the starting job leading to a demotion. We only have one anecdotal example in recent memory of USC quarterback competitions as the sample size for assessing the success of freshman USC quarterbacks.
When Matt Barkley was given the starting QB job as a freshman, it felt like an aggressive, forward-looking decision. Sure enough, the team struggled a bit during his first years. But by his third year, as a junior, he had developed into a truly exceptional quarterback around the country, leading the team to a 10-2 season despite a limited roster via NCAA sanctions. But it didn’t add up to the almost unlimited hype built up during his senior year. He came in on top of the Heisman watch list, the Trojans came into that 2012 season as the No. 1 team in the nation in the AP Poll. But the Trojans didn’t even finish ranked that year, Barkley was injured in a demoralizing loss to UCLA and the Trojans suffered one of their most embarrassing losses ever to Georgia Tech during the El Paso Bowl.
In hindsight, would Barkley have actually developed into a Heisman winner if the veteran Aaron Corp had been given the starting job back in 2009, and Barkley had a couple seasons to soak in the strategic aspects of the game from the sideline with a clipboard? Could the Trojans have been more competitive than 9-4 in 2009 if a veteran was under center? We will never know. All we can say is that it certainly wasn’t a surprising success, so the decision to give the job to Browne looks like a perfectly good move.
But as Helton hinted, Darnold could get the call for some short yard situations, either on third downs or in the red zone. It really would be the best of both worlds. Darnold would get a little game experience going forward for when he likely takes over but doesn’t have the pressure or expectations that he would if thrown into the starting role, Browne gets to really lead the team and run the offense and the offense can add some real versatility during some of the most important junctions of games.
It’s way too early to start making comparisons to the Chris Leak and Tim Tebow duo that won a national championship for Florida in 2006, but that’s what this naïve and nostalgic senior is hoping for this year.
Luke Holthouse is a senior majoring in policy, planning and development and print and digital journalism. His column, “Holthouse Party,” runs on Wednesday.