No big surprise that as the last act of USC’s 2016 spring practice played out Monday, Clay Helton decided not to make the call as to who his starting quarterback would be.
Redshirt senior Max Browne, in a surprisingly close battle with redshirt freshman Sam Darnold and his “moments of “brilliance,” as Clay described them, will continue through the summer and into the fall a competition that very much defined this spring.
Finishing up his fourth spring as a Trojan, Browne looked every bit the part of a starter Saturday throwing for three touchdowns in 11 attempts, completing seven, for 114 yards on a Spring Game day when USC used four quarterbacks.
“I felt like I took a big step this spring,” Browne said stepping into the role Cody Kessler had assumed the last three seasons. Had he “locked up the job,” he was asked.
“We’ll see,” Max said. “I thought I played well.” But his improvement wasn’t on him alone, he said. “It was the product of two quarterbacks playing well.”
And that is reflected in Clay’s decision not to make a decision. And it’s the product of an interesting final week of competition that had Helton backing off on Thursday from what he termed a miscommunication after Tuesday’s practice that there would probably be a quarterback named Monday.
And then after Saturday, Clay sounded more like he just might pull the trigger after seeing the film and sitting down with his quarterbacks. But that was not the case.
"I met with them today and told them that, based on how well they played, I have decided to continue the quarterback competition into Fall Camp,” Helton said in a statement released by USC. “I will wait until then to name a starter."
Probably the absolute best way to keep a QB controversy, if it is that, going is when both are playing well enough to win it. Much better than those situations where a coach can’t name a starter because no one is playing well enough. It’s been a very good spring there for the Trojans.
USC’s top target, Juju Smith-Schuster, after catching a pair of touchdown passes from Browne and one from Darnold Saturday, talked of the differences in the two quarterbacks.
”Darnold throws it a lot faster, like Aaron Rodgers,” JuJu said of the freshman who hit on six of seven passes for 63 yards and two TD including a four-yarder to JuJu.
”But did you see Max Browne’s deep throws,” JuJu asked of the 64- and 38-yard TD passes – the first to Darreus Rogers, the second to JuJu. “Max has the arm strength to put the ball over guys.”
But Clay Helton was thinking of something else Saturday when he said “One thing in Max’s favor is his poise.” Earlier in the week, he’d explained that while both guys kept making plays and hitting throws into narrow windows, the difference was “that Max could tell you why” the play was there. Sam meanwhile saw what was there and made the throw with his natural ability.
”To be honest, you can only have one quarterback,” passing game coordinator and quarterbacks coach Tyson Helton said. And you have to make the call. Just not right now.
”You gotta’ like competition,” Tyson said, “but at the end of the day, you’ve got to play the cards” the way they play out no matter how that plays out.
The way USC’s pro-style offense featuring tight ends much more as it gives the quarterback a number of quick options to move the ball and pick up yards, seems to favor a quarterback with experience to see what’s there in one glance. And an arm to throw the ball deep on play-action for a team that will make opponents stop the run first while setting them up for the home-run hit is crucial.
But that wasn’t enough after the run-pass threat Darnold’s impressive spring to sway the decision the veteran’s way.
The three criteria for a USC quarterback were these, Tyson said:
”One, manage the offense. Get the ball to the right place at the right time.
”Two: Don’t turn the ball over.
”And three, does the ball move down the field and do you score.” It’s not how pretty you are doing it, Tyson said, it’s how effective you are.
As to Darnold, Tyson had nothing but praise. “What I like about him is he’s not afraid to pull the trigger. He doesn’t have a conscience. And he doesn’t force it.”
One of the big edges for Browne was the way he’s taken over for Kessler as the leader in winter workouts, calling the time for throwing sessions that have been the best-attended in recent years.
A graduate in 3 ½ years with a degree in communications, Browne is in the first class of a special online Marshall School MBA program that will have him picking up his master’s in five semesters. The 6-foot-5, 226-pound Sammamish, Wash. native, who was the nation’s No. 1 pro-style quarterback prospect four years ago, has two seasons of eligibility at USC.
After redshirting this fall, the 6-4, 220-pound San Clemente product Darnold has four seasons of eligibility left.
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