Back in January when we ranked the top Trojans, one through 53, on a scale of who absolutely had to come through for this team in 2016, it was no surprise that Max Browne was No. 1. And for good measure, we listed Sam Darnold as No.1a.
You really better have two quarterbacks, we said. But of course, you absolutely have to have one.
It’s the first question new quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator Tyson Helton had as he looked ahead to spring practice, starting Tuesday, and a redesigned USC offense.
That’s when the coaches will start to learn "what flows when we do it.,” Tyson said. “What are we really good at. We're going to have athletes. But we have to find out how good our quarterbacks are."
Indeed we will.
We thought we had an idea when we described Browne’s No. 1 ranking then: “It’s not a close call. It's almost always the quarterback who’s No. 1. When he's coming in off three years as a well-respected backup who was No. 1 in the nation, the Gatorade Player of the Year coming out of high school, it's even more so. Look for USC to get back to the long ball/over-the-top, play-action game that will work much more naturally with the easy-throwing Browne getting a hoped-for much more dependable run game.”
"I was the next big thing," Max said then of a career that has consisted of three years backing up Cody Kessler. "It didn't work out quite as you 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 of waiting in the wings in his baseball cap and headset on the sidelines listening to the coaches in case he was needed. He completed 11 of 19 passes (57.9 percent) for 143 yards. More like a good half for a starter in fourth quarters against Arkansas State and Idaho and a couple of series against Arizona State.
"You learn a lot about yourself," Max says. "How you handle adversity."
Now we’re all in for a lesson. The 6-foot-5, 226-pounder going into his fourth spring already has his bachelor’s degree in Communications. And is enrolled in the first-of-its-kind online MBA program in USC’s Marshall School geared to those with another career going. Max has football, he says, a full-time deal for him now.
And he has two years of eligibility left, which would perfectly coincide with the time it will take to get his MBA. "I'm an adult," he says, having turned 21 Feb. 2. "But my approach is the same," he says of his new role as team leader," "it's easier to get up at 6 a.m. It's easier to do that extra rep."
It’s also easier to take over the winter workouts, as Max has, to make the calls for when and where and how they get together. That’s something he's stepped in to do in January and February when the new coaching staff was fully engaged in recruiting. Max soldiered on with the old playbook and the old routes, knowing that this is more of a get-acquainted time than installation.
"You make sure people are accountable,” he says. “Last year I was a step removed."
What he has to show is that as the classic drop-back quarterback, he can still handle the run-pass option stuff with quick-enough feet and at least a threat to pull the ball out and quickly dish it to an open receiver even if the QB run isn’t exactly on the table. But he has better wheels than you might imagine. And then there's this: Peyton Manning and Tom Brady didn’t exactly burn it up in the 40.
But Darnold is a different animal. At 6-4 and 225 now, the redshirt freshman from San Clemente is basically a linebacker with quick feet and the athleticism of the leading high school rebounder in Orange County with a surprisingly strong arm who can spin the football.
Here’s what we said in January about Sam and his 1a ranking: “Only time we'll go with an (a) ranking at a position spot. But because we think with this team this year in these circumstances, and with three former quarterbacks coaching these guys up in Clay Helton and Tyson Helton and Tee Martin, there's plenty of time and talent and focus to bring both guys up to speed the next nearly seven months. We think it will work better if they do and if Sam makes us much progress as Max considering the different skill sets this pair brings to the table."
That Sam, with just a fall running the Scout team, is in a head-to-head battle with Max, says more about Sam than it does Max. After not arriving until last summer, Sam’s quick-starting performance chased off Ricky Town, now at Arkansas after he'd arrived last spring. Almost as soon as Sam started the throwing sessions, it was obvious. He was bigger, stronger, faster, quicker and threw it much better.
Now Sam moves up with the big boys. This should be interesting as he picks up experience to go with the rest of his quarterback toolbox.
Jalen Greene is next up, back at quarterback, at least part of the time for starters, after a redshirt freshman season as a wide receiver. But that doesn’t mean the strong-armed lefty from Serra didn’t get to throw the ball. On flanker-option passes, he completed three of four for 127 yards, one of them a 75-yard touchdown against Notre Dame, a game in which he also caught two passes,
Greene showed all sorts of athleticism, competitiveness and poise in delivering the ball when and where it had to go. The 6-1, 195-pounder from Gardena gives USC a dimension it hasn’t had. Should be fun to see how the USC offensive coaches decide to use him.
Here’s what we said about Jalen in January as the No. 43 guy: “The athletic, multi-skilled lefty from Serra gets this spot on a team with just three scholarship quarterbacks and 15 wide receivers, where he's still listed. He'll get some snaps and let's see how this plays out in the spring. He's made some big plays as a flanker passer. Look for more of that.”
No. 4 on a depth chart that probably doesn’t exist going into the spring is early-entry freshman Matt Fink, not exactly the type of quarterback USC has been recruiting. As much a runner (1,106 yards on 180 carries, a 6.1 average) as passer, the athletic Fink was a 50.0 percent passer (87 of 174 for 1,258 yards) but it didn’t stop there. He had six tackles, two interceptions, 37 punts and a reception.
And from a quick look at the winter workouts, he’s not bashful. Fink is a competitor, although he seems destined, as were the three quarterbacks who came before him, for a redshirt season running the Scout team.
Max Browne, Jr (Grad student)., QB
Sam Darnold, RFr., QB
Matt Fink, Fr., QB
Jalen Greene, So., QB
Second in a series of spring position previews for the 2016 Trojans. Next: special teams.
Here's the spring practice info:
*** The dates of USC’s 2016 spring football practices are: March 8-10-12-22-24-26-29-31-April 2-5-7-9-12-14-16.
*** Spring practice times: Tuesday and Thursday practices at 3:30 p.m., Saturday practices at 10 a.m. (except the April 16 Spring Game at 3 p.m.). All practices will be held on Howard Jones Field/Brian Kennedy Field on campus, except for two practices at the Coliseum (March 26 and the April 16 Spring Game).
*** All of USC spring practices will be open to the public for viewing from a designated area on the east side of Howard Jones Field (north of Goux’s Gate) or from the south stands at the Coliseum.. *** USC's Spring Game will be Saturday, April 16, at 3 p.m. in the Coliseum. Tickets are $10 and can be purchased at the door (or online on USCTrojans.com).
*** USC's Pro Day is March 23 at 10 a.m. on Loker Stadium’s Cromwell Field. It is closed to the public.
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