Redshirt freshman Sam Darnold will replace redshirt junior Max Browne as USC’s starting quarterback, head coach Clay Helton announced after Monday’s practice.
Helton attributed the decision to wanting to change up the offense after its struggles earlier in the season.
“When you’ve scored one touchdown against Stanford and Alabama, I wanted to see a spark in our offense,” Helton said.
But the coach stopped short of criticizing Browne, who has completed 55 of 87 passes this season for two touchdowns.
“I truly appreciate how honorably Max has played and competed,” Helton said. “He’s done it with extreme honor and class. He is not the reason we are 1-2. He is not the scapegoat here.”
Darnold, who was locked in a fierce battle with Browne for the starting job throughout camp but ultimately lost out to the redshirt junior, will take over the reins from Browne just three games into the season.
“I was stoked to finally get that opportunity,” Darnold said. “Max competed his butt off. It was a coach’s decision. I’m ready whenever coach puts me in just like any other game.”
The redshirt freshman has seen playing time in all three games this season. He is 14-of-22 passing, accruing 136 yards, two touchdowns and an interception.
Helton said he met with both quarterbacks last night and wanted to give Darnold a chance at taking over the offense.
“It’s not that Max played bad,” he said. “The ball was not getting in the end zone. I looked at the opportunity that Sam has had. I look at the opportunities Sam has had and what he did. Knowing he was very talented but not knowing how he performed in ball games. He was given that opportunity in the first three games and did a very good job at it.”
Darnold performed well beyond his years during camp. The accomplished recruit out of San Clemente High School forced the issue during practices with an impressive display of his dual-threat abilities.
Standing 6-foot-4 at 225 pounds, Darnold has been praised for his strong instincts and ability to run the ball.
Browne admitted to being disappointed about the decision, and said he had an inkling that a change was in the works the way Darnold received playing time in each of the first three games. Darnold played two series against Alabama, the entire fourth quarter against Utah State and the last drive of the game against Stanford.
“Just by the way Sam was sprinkled in there, you kind of know [a change was coming],” Browne said. “When you’re losing ball games, it’s not easy on anyone. After I watched the film, I was better than I thought. [The switch] surprised me for sure. I’d be lying if I said otherwise.”
Browne said he regrets not connecting on more deep balls, which could have changed the tone of the offense. For now, he will stay ready as the backup — Browne was the backup to Cody Kessler for two seasons before taking over this season.
“I know how these things work,” Browne said. “Once the young guy goes, you know how it is. But I’ll be ready. I owe it to my teammates and the guys I’ve been with four years now. I’ll be ready at a moment’s notice.”
Helton, though, described Darnold as an “every down” quarterback and mentioned that redshirt sophomore quarterback Jalen Greene could be used in certain packages.
“It’s only Week 4,” Browne said, while admitting he was considering options for his football future. “There’s a lot of ball to play. I’ll stay ready. It’s been like that for all my career.”
USC’s next game is on Friday against No. 24 Utah on the road.
Angel Viscarra contributed to this report. This story was updated at 8:23 p.m.
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