By Johnny Curren
As expected, the dominating topic of conversation throughout the first week of spring practice at USC revolved around the highly publicized quarterback battle – and for good reason. After all, with the departure of a three-year starter in Cody Kessler following last season, and Head Coach Clay Helton declaring the position completely up for grabs, no competition is likely to have more of an impact on the Trojans’ fortunes in 2016.
With redshirt-junior Max Browne, redshirt-freshman Sam Darnold, redshirt-sophomore Jalen Greene and early-entrant freshman Matt Fink duking it out each day on Brian Kennedy-Howard Jones Field, it’s been an intriguing position battle to observe to say the least, with each player bringing their own unique set of skills to the fold.
Browne, the 6-foot-5 frontrunner, has performed as anticipated for the most-part, showcasing the highest level of poise in the pocket, not to mention outstanding leadership in the huddle, as well as his trademark pinpoint deep ball. He’s also taken the most reps with the No. 1 offense by far.
Darnold looks to be solidly in the No. 2 position right now. Although not quite as steady as his older counterpart, the San Clemente (Calif.) product has flashed at times, showing off perhaps the strongest arm of the quartet, as well as the speed to pick up yardage on the ground.
After spending the 2015 campaign at wide receiver, Greene, somewhat surprisingly, has been back at quarterback full-time. Obviously a fantastic all-around athlete, the 6-1 lefty hasn’t received quite as many reps as Browne or Darnold, but he too has had his brief moments, and he appears to be more determined now than ever to prove himself at the position.
The dual-threat youngster, Fink, meanwhile, has looked predictably raw throughout a majority of the workouts, but he has already shown signs of improvement, drawing praise from his head coach as a result.
But each candidate’s individual talents aside, what exactly is Helton looking for in the next starting quarterback at USC?
“The goal of every quarterback is to move the ball,” Helton said. “Some guys do great in drills, but at the end of the day, when the bullets are flying, does the ball move and do you produce as a quarterback? And those are going to come from live scrimmages, live bullets flying – you’ll find out from that.”
Through three practices, Helton’s criteria certainly seems to further support the idea that Browne holds the lead right now.
No player has guided the offense down the field with a higher degree of consistency, and he came up clutch in the final five-play challenge in each of the last two workouts, throwing touchdown passes to give the offense the victory on the last play on both occasions.
His strike over the middle of the field to Deontay Burnett last Thursday, in particular, made a big impression on Helton.
“We’re in that team competition at the end, and you make the throw when it counts, I was very pleased on the last throw – dead on the money for the win,” Helton said following practice. “Those are the things you want to see from a quarterback.”
Having been involved in two quarterback battles in the past, Browne also holds an edge over his competitors when it comes to experience – even if it hasn’t come in actual games.
“I’ve been through two competitions before this, so I kind of know the ropes, I kind of know how it’s going to work as far as sharing the reps and all of that,” Browne said. “I’m just older, more comfortable, I’ve been here a long time – that makes it a little nicer.”
Still, it’s early, and the job isn’t Browne’s yet. In fact, similar to the other contenders, he’s had his momentary lapses – particularly this past Saturday when he threw three interceptions over the course of the two-and-a-half hour practice.
As such, the competition is still very much on-going, and unless Browne or one of the other candidates catches fire and separates themselves by a wide margin at some point this spring, Helton is prepared to let the battle wage on into the summer and through fall camp.
“I’m hoping after five great weeks of practice – we’ll see where we’re at – we’ll make a judgment,” Helton said. “If the gap is close, and there’s some progress that can be made, then we’ll take it into fall camp.”