Who will win the quarterback job?
It was the biggest question of spring for the Trojans as the departure of Sam Darnold left an obvious hole in the center of the USC offense.
It was known that there would be two candidates in spring (RS soph Matt Fink and RS freshman Jack Sears) along with the fall camp arrival of true freshman JT Daniels, who reclassified to bypass his senior year at Mater Dei in order to enter the competition. USC coach Clay Helton had even announced before spring that there would be no starter named at the end of spring which was an obvious nod to the fact that Daniels would be given a chance to earn the job.
No matter which choice is made it will be an inexperienced college signal-caller at the helm. Fink has attempted nine passes and completed six of them for 43 yards, along with 7 carries including a memorable 61-yard touchdown dash against Oregon State. Sears redshirted last season, while Daniels was leading the Monarchs to a national title last fall.
I think most Trojan fans, and Helton as well, were hoping that either Fink or Sears would take a step forward in spring and end up being that lead guy through summer and into fall camp. To be blunt, that didn’t happen. There were moments for both guys during spring where there were signs of progress and Helton was quick to point those out although by the end of spring even the always-optimistic Helton said there was a lot of work to be done.
One thing I would point out in defense of both guys is the lack of quality time spent in scrimmage or live situations to best judge how a quarterback is responding in those conditions. Part of the reason for so few scrimmages is the NCAA guidelines on how many spring practices can have contact or scrimmage situations, it really is restrictive, and you also have a coach in Helton who has shown that he’s going to err on the safe side in practice.
The reason I think it would have been good for both quarterbacks to have those live settings is because I think both of them react better in those situations. Fink is definitely a player who relies more on his athletic skills and knowledge of the system rather than pure QB fundamentals. Matt may not have much in the way of playing time but this is his third year in the system and he’s got the best grasp overall of the offensive scheme. Former USC quarterback John Mazur commented recently that Fink is the less likely of the two to make a mistake, which by itself is a reason to say he would be the safer choice at the moment. The man thing for Matt in trying to claim the job is the accuracy of his throws, he’s got a strong arm but can he consistently make the throws?
Sears, on the other hand, is the more natural quarterback of the two but he is not as far along with his overall mastery of the offense. Count me as one of those who thinks Jack can rise his game when the lights go on, and we saw that in the big spring scrimmage with the way he responded to an early pick-6 by completing 8 of 9 passes and a pair of touchdowns. Mazur was also clear in saying that what we saw in spring is a snapshot of where both players are in spring, and that the proverbial “light bulb” can go on at anytime between now and the start of the season.
So what will take place between now and that point? The next step for the quarterbacks is to lead the player-run-practices which will start in early June. Instead of it being Fink and Sears on the field with Daniels stationed behind them but unable to take part (as was the case in spring), Daniels will be able to throw and take part in all of those sessions, which will basically be twice a week through late July. That will take us through to fall camp with Helton usually wanting to name a depth chart two weeks out from the opener.
Is that enough time for Daniels to make a legitimate run to be the starter right away or at least early in the season? Yes. He’s had the playbook since early February, he was able to attend spring ball practices, watch film (including the signal sheets) and he will have the whole summer to work on timing with the receivers. There is an obvious buzz about his potential but it’s important to note that he hasn’t thrown an interception or incomplete pass yet as a Trojan. He’s still an 18-year high school who is scrambling to pass a bunch of extra classes in order to even get the opportunity to show up, but there’s no denying the opportunity is there for him as we leave spring ball and head to summer.