Sam Darnold Should Be USC Football’s Starting Quarterback

USC quarterback Sam Darnold during practice at Howard Jones Field. (Alicia de Artola/Reign of Troy)
USC quarterback Sam Darnold during practice at Howard Jones Field. (Alicia de Artola/Reign of Troy) /

Clay Helton says he’ll make the quarterback decision that is best for USC football as a whole. Sam Darnold is the right fit for the job in 2016.

Two days from now, USC football will have a new starting quarterback. Whether or not redshirt junior Max Browne or redshirt sophomore Sam Darnold takes the crown will dominate talk in Troy until a decision is announced.

“At the end of the day I’m going to sit down I’m going to weigh all the tape and I’m going to see who is the best person to lead our team and to help us win football games,” Helton said Thursday.

But who is the best person to lead the Trojans? Who will help them win the greatest number of football games?

Helton’s criteria for selecting a starter includes decision-making, timing, accuracy and ability to move the offense.

Both quarterbacks tick all the boxes. But Darnold, the younger of the two, offers something more.

Darnold’s timing is generally on point. His accuracy is reliable. His decision-making is risk averse. Much like Cody Kessler, Darnold tends to take what the defense offers him, picking the simple option that keeps the ball moving.

Both quarterbacks tick all the boxes. But Darnold, the younger of the two, offers something more.

Importantly, Darnold shares another tendency with Kessler — he doesn’t throw interceptions. Turnovers have been a rarity with the redshirt freshman at the helm. During both spring and fall camp he went days between interceptions.

Unlike Kessler, however, Darnold brings other dynamic elements to the offense.

With Darnold on the field the option to run zone-read and designed quarterback runs will exist and be utilized.

Whether by design or not, Darnold’s mobility is a weapon to use against defenses. Physically, defenders must be capable of chasing him down. Mentally, defenders must make a note of his potential to take off as a runner and be prepared for it. Adding another thing for a defense to worry about can be a great advantage.

Many a Trojan defense has been exploited by a quarterback with scrambling ability like Darnold’s, the kind that can freeze a defender just long enough to open the door for a positive play.

SEE ALSO: Predicting USC’s Fall Camp Depth Chart

But it’s not really a decision between non-mobile or mobile.

“I’ve always said we’re not going to run a quarterback twenty times or you’re going to have a dead quarterback by the end of the season,” Helton said after practice on Thursday. “The one thing that will always stay true here is with the skill set that they have around them from running backs to wide receivers and tight ends, you have to be a thrower first.”

Helton has maintained all along that the Trojan QB must be an elite thrower.

Initially, USC’s quarterback battle was a question of ability. Could Sam Darnold rise to Max Browne’s level as a passer?

The answer was slowly revealed during spring and was confirmed in fall camp. Yes.

Darnold has continually proven through fall camp that his throwing ability passes muster. He can hit the deep ball accurately, he can drop in a touch pass over the top of defenders, he can zip the ball out quickly on outside screens, he can fit it in tight spaces on slants.

While Browne may boast the big arm and ability to stretch the field, Darnold’s arm is not lacking in any sense. He too can stretch the field to help out the running backs.

In fact, that’s the thing Darnold says he has improved the most over the course of the last three weeks.

“Just having the confidence to go out there and sling it around the park and not be afraid to throw it to different guys, have trust in my receivers,” Darnold said Thursday. “As camp has gone on I’ve developed a lot of trust in these guys and I think that part’s really good.”

Now, with two quarterbacks on the same level, USC’s quarterback battle is a question of style.

Do the Trojans want to play Browne’s game, with a big arm, gunslinger mentality, capable of exploding with chunks of yardage downfield?

SEE ALSO: Is It Max Browne’s Time To Be USC’s Starter?

Or is Helton more interested in fielding an offense tuned to Darnold’s rhythm, moving the ball quickly in shorter bursts, with a low-risk mentality and intriguing mobility factor to keep the defense honest?

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There are good arguments to be made in support of either approach. And it would be doing a great disservice to Browne to suggest that he is a lesser quarterback than Darnold. But he is a different quarterback than Darnold.

For USC in 2016, the latter choice just feels like the right one.

If Clancy Pendergast’s aggressive defense can replicate results from 2013 and if the Trojan run game can establish themselves as one of the most dangerous in the conference, having a quarterback who protects the ball and minimizes mistakes will be key.

Perhaps a fortuitous byproduct of picking the redshirt freshman with less experience is the mandate to truly embrace the physical rushing attack that many a Trojan coach has talked about but never really committed to.

RELATED: Could USC Have Two 1,000 Yard Rushers In 2016?

USC will start a rookie quarterback against Alabama either way, but the experience gap between Browne and Darnold is real. The temptation might be to trust in Browne’s overall college experience, putting more on his plate from the get-go.

With Darnold, entering his second year of college experience, there would be even more reason to lean on the running game to carry the offense.

Without question, USC’s greatest asset heading into the 2016 season is a strong group of running backs and a veteran offensive line ready to clear the way for them.

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Regardless of the quarterback, the Trojans must play to their strengths in 2016, and the trio of Justin Davis, Ronald Jones II and Aca’Cedric Ware should be the stars of the show.

In that sense, USC’s quarterback this year shouldn’t be the leading man. He should be the supporting character. The likeable best friend. The wing man.

The irony of the fervor around the quarterback competition is that a successful 2016 for USC will depend far more on the performance of the running backs and offensive line than the man throwing the ball.

Having a quarterback who makes quick decisions, takes what the defense gives him and does damage with his feet when the opportunity arises is all USC needs.

Darnold looks capable of being that quarterback today.