When QB's go 1 on 1

It's the story for the rest of USC's spring -- quarterback competition or quarterback controversy -- as Max Browne and Sam Darnold battle it out.

No loud music. More than a half-dozen potential starters sidelined. Emphasis on technique, toughness and day-to-day improvement. Lots of coaching. Little hype.

What’s the media to do?

How about a quarterback controversy? It doesn’t get any better, or easier, than that.

Everybody likes a quarterback competition and how that can easily evolve. What’s not to like here?

And USC has the makings of the perfect one.

Young gunslinger Sam Darnold arrives on the scene after a redshirt season that caught everyone’s eye. He starts making play after play in his first spring, does everything better than anyone could have hoped for this soon, gets the kind of praise from the head coach -- once the QB coach and offensive coordinator -- about his playmaking and his progress because that’s exactly what his play deserves.

Sure, it’s been mostly against a defense that’s running a bit short on numbers and talent this spring in the second group at all three levels. And he’s able to light them up without a pass rush in his face or a five-star defender tracking his top receiver.

But that’s not the young guy’s fault.

He just goes out there and makes the plays he’s given against the guys he’s given to make them against. He’s in rhythm. A natural at 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds. Shut his receivers down and he takes off like . . . well, like no USC quarterback this century although Carson Palmer could have come close if he’d wanted to. He pretty much didn’t have to, at least in his last year here.

So that makes the new guy even more attractive in the read option and run-pass option and when protection, as it has too often in recent years, breaks down.

Although not that any of this should have completely surprised us. At least not the way it surprised Ricky Town, who turned his back on Alabama for USC a year ago, got here for the spring semester and then, when Darnold showed up in the summer, bolted for Arkansas.

Good move. From Day 1, Sam was way better than those of us, even the ones who spent time breaking down his videos, had a serious clue about. We knew he was a big-time athlete with the body of a quick-footed tight end/linebacker who had been Orange County’s top high school rebounder as a basketball scrapper from the days when athletes played whatever sport was in season.

When he showed up on Cromwell Field last summer, the ball jumped out of his hands. But it wasn’t just the quick power, he was spinning that thing. So natural. So easy. And then there was his own acceleration. Who knew from watching one of his high school games when he ran it more than he threw it that he could do both this well?

But much of that went into hibernation during his redshirt fall wearing a black jersey leading the Scout team and running a different game plan every week.

While Max Browne, in his fourth spring and a lifetime removed, it seems, from his days as the nation’s No. 1 pro-style quarterback prospect, ran the USC game plan every day preparing himself for his chance behind Cody Kessler. That chance never came, in a career that’s seen him throw 19 passes as he earned a bachelor’s degree in communications and admission into a new online USC MBA program.

Now his job is to earn his job. To earn his teammates’ respect as their natural leader, as the guy who was issuing the call for the best-attended winter workouts in years – a good start. Max is a serious guy. A no-nonsense guy.

He throws the deep ball effortlessly. The play-action, over-the-top game is a natural for him if this team can run the football the way it’s being designed to do.

On the short balls, he drives them with force although not as naturally as Sam, he can be just as effective. The ball just comes from a bit of a different place the way the 6-foot-5, 226-pound Max cocks it above his ear.

He’s exactly where we expected him to be against a much more aggressive, much quicker defense than he – or any of us – have been used to seeing at USC. He’s getting Clancy Pendergast’s “A” game. And that’s as we should want it.

Max no longer takes the chances he did as a younger guy. He doesn’t throw it into a crowd as Sam just might as he depends on his arm to get it there. For those who count interceptions, they’re really counting apples and oranges. Two of Max’s first three this spring came on balls through receivers’ hands that moving defenders picked off.

By the numbers head-to-head is the simplistic way to look at this. This will play out in a much more qualitative way. A feel, if you will. And that’s going to take time, Clay Helton says correctly.

You’re going to see more of Sam against the ones and under the pressure that brings. You’re going to see more apples-vs.-apples comparisons.

And there will always be the unspoken consideration that Max, with his degree, is that rarest bird in NCAA sports – a truly free agent this summer. He’s said he’s here for the five semesters it will take to get his MBA.

But he also feels, as he should even as he competes, that this is his team, the one he hung in there for when at times a case might have been made that he should get a shot to make that so the past couple of seasons.

Max also knows how much he wasn’t ready as a redshirt freshman to lead a team against Alabama away from home in his first game. And he’s almost certainly correct.

At quarterback, experience matters. More than almost anything. But then so does raw talent.

Which is why this won’t go away. Nor should USC fans want it to. It’s where it is because Sam has performed so well. He’s jumped up, Max hasn’t fallen back.

Having two quarterbacks competing like this – and a change-of-pace athlete who can run it, throw it and do things the others cannot in Jalen Greene, is a very good thing.

Will there be a decision this spring? We thought so a couple of weeks ago. We’re not so sure now.

Again, that’s a very good thing. Sam has forced his way in here. And good for him. And for USC which has to have two quarterbacks the Trojans can win with if one goes down. It looks like they do.

In the long run, this is a very good thing for Max to have to play with this kind of pressure. You see him taking off with the ball now, not hesitating.

And you hear from Sam how much he's thinking about what it is the defense he's looking at is going to do.

And that is what spring is all about, no matter what we call it.

You can follow me on Twitter at @dweber3440 or email me at weber@uscfootball.com. #USCSpringBall16


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