Three years ago this month, when Max Browne walked on to the USC campus at midyear, he was carrying just 205 pounds on his slim 6-foot-5 frame. But the Gatorade National Football Player of the Year, the USA TODAY Offensive Player of the Year, the Parade and Prep Star All-American first-teamer, the top-ranked quarterback on almost every scouting service, was a very big deal.
"I was the next big thing," Max says with a shake of the head. "It didn't work out quite as I expected." At least not exactly the way some might have projected it for the Sammamish, Wash. Skyline product after a redshirt season and two years as a backup.
"It's not like in high school when you're the five-star guy and everyone in town knows who you are," Max says, "when you are the next big thing. I was always the best basketball player, the best football player. If you put in the work, you got the results. That's not the way it is here. There are lots of players just as good."
And some of them are in line ahead of you. So you do what you can do. "You learn a lot about yourself," Max says. "How you handle adversity."
One way he handled it was by doing what he could do. A year ago, he was name Co-Lifter of the Year for his work in the weight room. Last fall he earned the Bob Chandler Award given to an underclassman for outstanding athletic ability, academic achievement and character.
Academically, however, he's a long way from that self-described "17-year-old not sure of what I wanted to do . . . I didn't want to close any doors." As it turns out, he didn't, pursuing and acquiring his bachelor's degree in Communications this past semester in those three years.
And after working on it since last February -- "It was a huge process," he says -- he's been accepted into the first year of a special MBA program USC is developing for students who have full-time obligations and will do the program online. With his 20 program mates, he'll finish in five academic semesters -- two springs, two summers and next fall.
Max thought that would work best with his Communications undergrad degree, allowing him to move in many different directions. "Maybe a broadcaster," he says. And allowing him to be free, like his MBA classmates with fulltime jobs and families, to concentrate on the one thing in his life that matters most.
Although he's not completely free. There was a full week on campus between semesters the class met all day every day. And now it's twice a week in the evenings.
"Every Monday and Wednesday I sit down and sign in at 6 p.m. for my classes,' Max says. "You have to, in effect, raise your hand that you're there."
But the rest of the time, well that's the second big difference in his life this January. For three years now, He was the guy in the baseball cap on the sidelines with his helmet always under his arm on a headset who would come running if it looked like he might be needed. Max was next. Now he's no longer on deck.
"It's right now," he says. It's his team. He's the guy, not Cody Kessler, who makes the calls or sends the texts to tell teammates it's time to throw.
Or tells them on the field or in the weight room that's not how we do things here. "Today it was the rope drill," he says. "You make sure people are accountable. Last year I was a step removed."
In fact, over the last three years, Cody "missed just that one play at Utah my freshman year. That was it. I was talking about that to [Sam] Darnold the other day," Max says of his conversation with the talented freshman he'll have to beat out this spring and summer to take the next step.
Although in the Pac-12 championship game, Cody took a shot in the ribs and had the wind knocked out of him. "Make sure Max is ready," he heard on the headset as he came running with his helmet, switching from his baseball cap headgear.
"Here we go," Max told himself. And for "the three full minutes" it took Cody to catch his breath, Max was ready. As he's been most of his career. And then Cody was able to continue. And the headset was back on and the helmet off.
That's how it's gone. In his career, Max has completed 11 of 19 passes (57.9 percent) for 143 yards. Pretty much the totals you might expect for a good half, which is what his work in the fourth quarters against Arkansas State and Idaho and a couple of series against Arizona State constitute.
With the changes in his academic and football lives, -- "I'm an adult," he says, or almost since he'll turn 21 next week -- "my approach is the same."
There is this. "It's easier to get up at 6 a.m." he says with his new role. "It's easier to do that extra rep."
He's 225 pounds now, up from that first-year 205 and down from a high of 233 when he thought he needed to bulk up. And his body fat number, is going from 14 percent down ideally to 12 or 13, he says.
And he'll tell you his favorite smoothie the new-look performance nutrition team will make to order for each player -- peanut butter and chocolate are the main ingredients. But the one they mostly make for him has strawberry, pineapple, vanilla muscle milk and water.
Max is looking forward to more time with new offensive coordinator Tee Martin and new quarterbacks coach Tyson Helton. "Tee's really excited about his new role," he says. But recruiting is the USC staff's top obligation right now.
And he has been looking at video of Western Kentucky's record-breaking offense and likes the description he's heard. " 'Efficient' is a great word for it," he says of what he's seeing on video. "They might take just six yards" on a quick first-down hit to one of the multiple wide receivers. "But that leaves you second and four," he says.
"That run-pass option is something we have in our offense," he says without knowing exactly where this is going until the coaches all get together and make those decisions. Will there be new concepts?
"Probably," he says. He can't wait. And yet he can.
It's something he knows how to do. "I was always ready," Max says. "I'd find myself missing out on the results of plays because I was always watching Cody to see if he was all right after the play."
Now he knows "the coaches are focused on recruiting," he says. So he'll move on with the winter throwing as in the past. "A curl is a curl," he says, "in any offense."
His time will come. And with it the new offensive sets. And he'll be ready, Max says, for whenever his time comes.
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