LOS ANGELES – The weather was perfect but the passes were not. Throws unfurled by the three Southern California quarterbacks currently on campus during practice here on Thursday landed in the general area code of willing receivers but fell incomplete, one after another, or off the hands of defensive backs.
Defense wins championships, head coach Clay Helton said afterwards, so it’s a good thing the USC defense looks up to the challenge. But everyone needs an offense. As of now, it’s safe to say the Trojans’ system is a work in progress – as was expected in the early weeks and months of life without Sam Darnold, a two-year starter whose next snap will come in the NFL.
Sophomore Matt Fink, redshirt freshman Jack Sears and sophomore Thomas Holden – the last a walk-on from Pacific Palisades, Calif. – aren’t ready. Not yet, at least. Passes sailed out of bounds. Bounced. Tracking completion percentages is one of the great sportswriter traditions of a springtime quarterback competition. The numbers here weren’t great.
“It’s twofold,” Helton said. “You want to puke in a trashcan on the quarterbacks’ side. And you’re very happy because of what? Right now the defense is really leading our football team.”
It’s almost like something was missing – or someone. The talk of the Trojans’ drills isn’t just the offense or the defense, the quest for a Pac-12 Conference title or what could be an unrealistic goal of reaching the College Football Playoff. The talk centers on the player who isn’t even there in pads: incoming freshman quarterback J.T. Daniels.
Not since Matt Barkley – who, like Daniels, hailed from Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, Calif. – has a USC true freshman quarterback been yoked with these sorts of expectations. As Fink and Sears battle for first-team snaps in the spring, there is an abnormally high likelihood that neither starts this fall, but that the job instead goes to a rookie who moved up his high school graduation date one year to enter the fray under center.
“He’s a different kid,” Helton said of Daniels, and he meant it as a compliment.
Several times each week, Daniels will make the roughly hour-long trip to the Trojans’ facility to spend time with the coaching staff, breaking down tape and going over the playbook with Helton and quarterbacks coach Bryan Ellis. During his official visit, Daniels was less interested in catching the school’s social scene than in getting into that facility to study the Trojans’ offense.
“The kid just loves ball,” Ellis said. “He’s further along than most freshmen I’ve ever been around. That’s exciting. He wants to be coached. That’s fun as a coach to understand that he’s always going to soak it up like a sponge.”
Daniels decided to reclassify into the class of 2018 in December, before Darnold decided to enter the NFL draft. Daniels would’ve reclassified even if Darnold had decided to return, Helton said, and probably have worn a redshirt before competing for the starting job in 2019. The coincidence worked out, though it would’ve been easy to predict in December that Darnold would be leaving after his redshirt sophomore season.
One piece of timing is off: Daniels may have sped up his academic clock but he still began this spring 11 credits shy of being eligible to enroll at USC. Instead of this spring, the Trojans’ quarterback competition won’t reach a full boil until fall camp.
“I know during fall camp we’ll get a different feel,” said wide receiver Tyler Vaughns. “It’s going to be fine.”
It’s a better time than any for optimism. Daniels’ combination of physical and mental gifts has scouting services calling him “one of the most gifted and college ready quarterbacks to come out of the state of California in years,” according to 247Sports.com.
“His advanced feel in the pocket, football IQ, ability to call protections, read coverages and understand a complex playbook is at a college level already,” the report continued.
USC hopes so. Fink and Sears will continue their imitation quarterback competition through Saturday, when USC caps its spring with a scrimmage, but Daniels looms over the proceedings. Every indication here says he won’t just enter the competition like countless other freshmen across the country; he’ll be the favorite.
“We’ve got some work to do. Anybody can see that. But we’re progressing every day,” Ellis said. “We’ve got to start putting consistent practices together back to back to back.”
Yet even if Daniels is everything USC hopes he can be as a freshman – which, realistically, is a solid starter who takes care of the football – that the conversation exists says something about the Trojans in 2018. It’s more common now than ever for a redshirt or even a true freshman quarterback to have his team in competition for the national title. But USC doesn’t have Alabama’s track record.
USC seems to have enough talent to hypothetically surround Daniels with some sort of security blanket. The receivers look strong. The defense is going to be one of the best in the Pac-12. With Darnold under center, this would be near the top of the polls. Even if Daniels is as advertised, the equation changes when the depth chart rolls over from a first-team all-conference pick and Heisman Trophy contender to a true freshman.
“With a younger quarterback, you’re going to have lean on that defense, they may have to get us out of some tough situations,” said Helton. “I really think offensively we’ll be fine. They’ll be some growing pains but we’ll get better each and every game.”