It was probably the wrong question to ask USC offensive coordinator, Tee Martin, about the way the Trojans quarterback battle turned out. After all, Tee was the quarterback who waited his turn at Tennessee and then stepped in after Peyton Manning to lead the Vols to their only BCS national title.
And you knew it as soon as Tee gave you that look.
Couldn't Sam Darnold, the redshirt freshman who took Max Browne to the last day in his fight to win the starting spot, be starting at a whole lot of programs around the nation, we wondered.
"I won't ever tell him that," recruiter extraordinaire Martin said with a look of shock at the very thought of how that sounded. He could, of course, because it's true: Sam could start most places.
But Tee won't tell him that, he said. He'll just say this of Sam: "He's really good."
All of which makes the case that the USC team that showed up Tuesday in full pads to put in much of its offense for Alabama, with the first, second and now third down stuff having been game-planned, looked not all that like the team that has "been thrown into the fire in the spring and summer" having to scrap and scrape against Clancy Pendergast's unleashed defenders.
Now they get to game-plan. Max and Sam watched three hours of Alabama film together Monday, Max said. They're still good buds, still competing and moving on from Saturday when Clay told them.
"It was awesome," Max said of going in first to Clay Helton's office to get the news. "But I was expecting it."
He sent a group text to his three brothers immediately, Max said, so they'd all get it at the same time "and none of them would feel butt-hurt." Then he got the word to mom and dad and his friends back home.
And now, here he was, his first official day as "the man" for USC. It was "a little bit different," Max said, but it felt "definitely normal," which he interpreted as a good thing.
After a spring and summer competition had left him "emotionally feeling like I'd played a full season," Max was still two practice weeks away from his first game. Not that it feels that way. "I've been here for almost four years now," he said.
So the chance to run some high-speed dummy offense, to go against a Scout defense running Alabama stuff, to get the majority of first-team reps and go mostly against the second-team defense when the Scout team wasn't in there was a change for him. And for Sam. And it felt good -- like it should for the No. 1 quarterback.
Not so much for Sam. "I wasn't getting as many reps with the ones," he said, admitting that getting beat out -- "Yeah, beat out," Sam said, "Max beat me out" -- was one of life's tough learning experiences. "I felt like Max prepared so well for every single practice."
Not that Sam didn't. And won't. "It takes just one play for Max to go down," he said. He has a list of what he'll work on to get better every day just as he has the last six months.
"Understanding protections more," Sam said, "knowing where a guy is coming free, staying calm in the pocket."
And finally, "I want to get my degree," Sam said, "this is my dream school. I love this place." So Tee has nothing to worry about. He can go ahead and tell Sam there are lots of places he could play. He's not going anywhere.
But then neither is Max.
"Max deserved it," Tee said. "He's good, really good . . . and now he gets to see what we want to do on tape . . . We're game-planning now . . . Max is very accomplished, a very good field general with great anticipation who gets the ball out on time and gets it on target. I like those kinds of quarterbacks."
What Max -- and Sam -- have gone through is "develops character" said Tee, who had those moments in his own college career. "Now you get that opportunity to go out and do it. 'I'm the guy,' you say to yourself."
It's two weeks to Game Day and "it worked out perfectly for us," Clay said of the three days off -- from the physical part of this to get their legs back and start class Monday and the start of the "mock game week" that will run through Saturday's lone closed practice.
Lots of Alabama talk Tuesday after the USC coaches had spent the last three days game-planning for the Tide. Talk of Calvin Ridley and how much he reminded Clay of Marqise Lee and how good former USC coach Lane Kiffin, now Bama's offensive coordinator, is at "getting his best player matched up against your worst" and how Ridley "can run by you or catch it short [in front of you] and then run long with it," Clay said . . . how he liked their big running back [Bo] Scarborough and on defense, their secondary . . . Clay said that having gone through its own QB battle with an athletic guy against a drop-back type, he has some understanding of where Alabama is although for the Tide, it's two and two to some extent . . . said USC's health situation is about as good as could be hoped for with safety Marvel Tell almost all the way back from his hamstring and left offensive tackle Chad Wheeler out of his boot and Clay saying how hopeful he is of getting him back this weekend despite hisplantar fasciitis, although Chad was out of cleats and pads Tuesday . . . going at left tackle in his stead was Chuma Edoga, the Atlantan who could be going back to SEC country in a very important role . . . Only safety John Plattenburg, out for two weeks now in concussion protocol, hasn't made it some of the way back that we could see . . . Adoree' Jackson may not have seen the football on offense yet this summer and with the clear indication that USC is going to play far more physically demanding man-to-man defense requiring his nearly full-time attention, Adoree' is going to get the ball on offense, Clay said, just not the 15 plays a game he was ready for last fall . . . and finally, there will be a package -- or more -- for the athletic Darnold, in short yardage and Red Zone, Sam guessed, but neither Clay nor Tee was about to reveal exactly what that would be.
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