Look down the list of starting quarterbacks at USC in recent history and the names leave no doubt that — over time — each one emerged as a clear-cut leader under center, from Cody Kessler to Matt Barkley to Mark Sanchez.
Things are a little more uncertain this time around. While head coach Clay Helton tapped redshirt junior Max Browne to succeed Kessler, Helton has also made sure to give playing time to redshirt freshman Sam Darnold, the youngster who forced a spirited quarterback competition.
“The performance by Sam Darnold at such a young age in both spring and fall camps has made us very confident as a staff that Sam could enter any game and our offense would not miss a beat,” Helton said last month when he announced Browne as the starter. “Though we will not rotate quarterbacks, we do envision using Sam’s unique athletic skill set for special situations throughout games this season.”
Through two games, Helton has stuck to his word. Darnold spelled Browne for two series in the opener against Alabama. Against Utah State on Saturday, the redshirt freshman was installed in a red zone situation early in the second quarter and then played the entirety of the fourth quarter.
While Browne is still clearly the No. 1 man, Darnold is right behind him and giving Helton reasons for more playing time.
“We were up 31-7, and thought it was a great opportunity being up four scores that it was his opportunity to get better,” Helton said, explaining why Darnold took over in the fourth quarter on Saturday. “He’s one snap away from being a starter. He did a great job. Came in and provided us with two touchdowns.”
Darnold said after the game that he wasn’t surprised he played extended time.
“We had a pretty comfortable lead,” he said. “I don’t think I’m going to throw a lot of pick-sixes to change that. I’m happy with the coaches trusting me to put me in that situation.”
On Darnold’s first play in the red zone during the second quarter, he connected on a screen pass to sophomore wide receiver Deontay Burnett for a 13-yard touchdown. His second touchdown pass came on a 15-yard strike to junior wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, threading the needle on target through several Utah State defenders.
Darnold knew “pretty soon” that Smith-Schuster would find an opening.
“In the red zone, we knew they play cover-4 and they like to zone off that linebacker,” he said. “I knew that JuJu was going to be able to sneak in right behind [the defender]. It was a great play call.”
The throw seemed as great as the play call. Darnold’s main strength is his ability to be a dual-threat — he has a strong arm and is able to zip the ball to receivers while being able to extend a play and run for yardage.
“I’m definitely trying to get the tempo up because the defense doesn’t know what’s coming,” Darnold said on his style of play. “Tempo’s a huge key when I go out there and play ball.”
In contrast, Browne has a strong pocket presence and has been touted for being an efficient game manager. But Darnold has picked up a few tips from his counterpart.
“He does a great job of staying in the pocket and being able to step in and throw when you know there’s guys around him,” Darnold said on Browne. “That’s something I’ve learned from him because usually, when there’s pressure I like to escape, try to make plays even when I can stay in there and make a throw.”
Darnold’s situation is unique. As a redshirt freshman, he is the presumed quarterback of the future — just as Browne was when he waited behind Kessler for multiple seasons.
But unlike Browne’s tenure as a backup, Darnold is being used in crucial situations, such as in the red zone or on third-and-short plays. His opportunities will be limited, but they will also come in high-pressure situations, meaning he is often coming in cold off the bench.
“It’s pretty hard,” Darnold said. “Coaches and people watching on TV, they don’t really care. They just want production.”
Darnold admitted he felt pressured to make a big play and impress right away. He grieved over one play during the Utah State game when, instead of handing the ball off to a running back, he pulled it back and wound up getting sacked.
Though he warms up on the sidelines every series, nothing replaces actual game experience.
“It’s always good to get those reps,” Darnold said. “On any play, Max could go down, and I’m the guy now.”
Speaking to the media after the game, Darnold did not bite when repeatedly asked about wanting to be the starter. Though, for Browne, knowing the talent right below him on the depth chart has to be interesting.
“It’s different, but if it helps our team I’m all for it,” Browne said on Darnold replacing him in the red zone. “I think the past three or four years has taught me to mentally roll with anything.”
He may have to roll with Darnold being on his heels for a while. On a day when Browne threw his first touchdown pass, so did Darnold. On a day when Browne had his long-awaited chance to lead USC to a victory, Darnold was a contributing factor and received almost as much attention.
In fact, they both have the same amount of touchdowns — two. And despite a smaller sample size, Darnold’s quarterback rating through two games is 155, while Browne’s sits at 107.4. But Browne has a slight edge in completion percentage — 62.7 perecent compared to 60 percent for Browne.
Darnold said he and coaches discuss nearly every day at practice which situations he will be inserted into, and that he has to be ready when called upon — even after an extended period on the sidelines.
“When we’re in the red zone or in close third downs, I know my number can be called at any time,” he said. “I’ve got my mouth piece ready and my chin strap in. When they say, ‘One-four, get in the game,’ I’m ready.”
Barring a letdown from Browne, this will be Darnold’s role — waiting his turn and attempting to showcase his abilities whenever he has the chance. If it all goes accordingly, though, Browne will soon pass the baton to him, and all the reps he received as a redshirt freshman will become valuable experience for Darnold.
“It’s a great grooming tool for him,” Helton said.