T-Time: Helton has no obvious choice for next QB

Trevor Denton | Daily Trojan

USC football is now in its fourth week of spring football practice, and head coach Clay Helton seems to have made little progress in selecting Sam Darnold’s successor at starting quarterback.

That isn’t necessarily alarming, as teams holding quarterback competitions usually wait until fall practice to settle on a starting signal caller. Helton himself has said the decision could be made as late as a week before the Trojans’ first game against UNLV.

However, what is alarming is how USC quarterbacks have performed in practice so far. The team held a live scrimmage on Saturday and both redshirt sophomore Matt Fink and redshirt freshman Jack Sears struggled to complete passes under pressure.

“My initial gut said that we weren’t very good,” Helton told the Los Angeles Times. “I can’t tell you [how] much more live reps we need.”

Right now, Fink and Sears are the top two contenders for the job, with redshirt sophomore Holden Thomas coming in at a distant third. None of them has played meaningful in-game action for USC — the only real glimmer of potential from the group came when Fink rushed for a 51-yard touchdown against Oregon State last season.

Fink has drawn the most praise from coaches and fellow players thus far, but mostly during non-contact 7-on-7 drills. His ability to run the ball is what sets him apart from USC’s other quarterbacks, but his throwing remains unrefined. Meanwhile, Sears — who graduated from San Clemente high school, where Darnold also played — is the most pro-style passer of the bunch. But he’s struggled with interceptions ever since arriving on campus last spring.

Right now, USC’s quarterback options seem less than inspiring. Fink and Sears both have potential and deserve the benefit of the doubt due to a lack of experience, but still, it’s difficult to see either having the same type of impact that Darnold did in his first year at starting quarterback.

Redshirt sophomore quarterback Jack Sears turned the ball over multiple times during Saturday’s scrimmage. Emily Smith | Daily Trojan

There is, however, a giant elephant in the room, with incoming five-star recruit JT Daniels set to enroll in the fall. The 18-year-old reclassified to join the class of 2018 after leading Mater Dei to a state title as a junior in 2017. While he hasn’t been competing with the team in spring, he’s been a regular attendee at practice in an effort to soak up the playbook before officially joining the team.

Daniels possesses the highest upside of USC’s quarterbacks by a wide margin. He threw for over 12,000 in three high school seasons, with 152 touchdown passes and only 14 interceptions. The deadly accurate passer added another dimension to his game as a junior, when he rushed for 561 yards and 9 touchdowns leading his team to a 15-0 perfect season.

He has all the tools to be a successful USC quarterback — a big arm, composure, mobility and a history of winning. Plus, he’ll already have chemistry with wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown, a fellow five-star also set to arrive in the fall. In high school, they linked up for nearly 3,000 yards and over 40 touchdowns.

Barring injury, Daniels will almost certainly be USC’s quarterback at some point — but he’s not a lock to start this season. With his senior year of high school bypassed, Daniels enters the 2018 season as one of the youngest quarterbacks in the nation. He still needs time to develop his slim 6’2”, 210-pound frame, and he won’t have much time to learn the playbook in a hands-on fashion. Attending spring practice is a step in the right direction, but Daniels’ education doesn’t really begin until he takes live reps.

Therefore, Helton could find himself in a tough spot when choosing a starter in August. If Fink and Sears continue to struggle and Daniels displays his youth in fall camp, there will be no clear-cut decision. USC’s roster is stacked with talented pass-catchers, like Tyler Vaughns (809 yards,  5 touchdowns in 2017) and junior Michael Pittman Jr. (404 yards, 2 touchdowns), but without a viable option at quarterback, their talent could go underutilized.

Helton’s impending decision will prove to be a defining moment in his career, as the next Trojan quarterback will shape the program’s success in 2018 and beyond. Helton simply can’t afford to bungle another competition like he did in 2016 when he initially chose Max Browne over Darnold heading into their season-opener against Alabama.

When USC plays UNLV on Sept. 1, there will be a new, untested quarterback under center. The choice of who will occupy this role may be Helton’s toughest and most important task to date.

Trevor Denton is a sophomore majoring in journalism. He is also the sports editor of the Daily Trojan. His column, “T-Time,” runs Wednesdays.