USC football shouldn’t be in a rush to name JT Daniels the starting quarterback

Alicia de Artola/Reign of Troy
Alicia de Artola/Reign of Troy /

JT Daniels, USC football’s heralded true freshman quarterback, is turning heads in fall camp. Does that mean Clay Helton needs to make him the starter now?

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The USC football program is undergoing its third quarterback battle of the decade, as they must replace the third pick in the NFL Draft, Sam Darnold. Poetically, there’s three clearly different options.

Matt Fink is your trusty redshirt sophomore game manager who must rely on efficiency. Jack Sears is a young-but-raw redshirt freshman in a similar mold to his San Clemente predecessor.

And then there’s true freshman JT Daniels, a man so confident in his ballyhooed arm he skipped his senior year of high school and tattooed Tommy Trojan down his leg.

Naturally, it’s taken no time for head coach Clay Helton to be called on by media and fans alike to ink-in the latter.

Why? Because Daniels, along with the help of his Mater Dei sidekick Amon-Ra St. Brown, dominated the Trojans’ first scrimmage of fall camp, just eight practices after setting foot on campus.

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He’s the school’s most heralded quarterback recruit in a decade, with a ceiling objectively higher than anyone on the roster.

So after Lane Kiffin’s mishandling of Cody Kessler vs. Max Wittek five years ago, and Helton’s relenting on picking Max Browne in 2016, the voices are boisterous.

The competition is over, they say. Let JT Daniels monopolize first-team reps now, they encourage.

Yet Helton hasn’t given in. Neither have Sears or Fink.

The company line is clear: the competition is still wide open and will be until the week of USC’s opener against UNLV.

As it should be. There’s still a ton of preseason football to be played.

Going all-in on an 18-year-old who spent the spring running between AP English classes instead of two-minute drills doesn’t have to be done today.

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Because the idea that the continuously-doubted Helton must name Daniels the starter as soon as possible or else, because that’s what Carroll or Urban Meyer or Nick Saban or [insert your create-a-coach from NCAA Football 14] would do to win championships, is false. The proof is in the pudding, nationally.

Since the College Football Playoff began in the 2014 season, 13 different quarterbacks have started national semifinals. None of them were ever anointed as a first-time starting quarterback prior to the end of fall camp in the year in which they won the job.

Only four —Florida State’s Jameis Winston, Oregon’s Marcus Mariota, Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield and Clemson’s Kelly Bryant— were officially dubbed QB1 with at least a week of practice before their first season opener, none of whom were a true freshman like Daniels.

In 2015 and a year before making the playoff, Washington head coach Chris Petersen refused to announce first-year man Jake Browning his starter until an hour before game time in Week 1. Alabama’s Jalen Hurts didn’t start until Week 2 in 2016, seven days after he relieved Blake Barnett to throttle USC in the Advocare Classic.

Jake Fromm, Georgia’s true freshman sensation from a year ago, almost didn’t even get an opportunity to see the field.

In the Bulldogs’ 2017 season opener, he replaced injured incumbent Jacob Eason, who head coach Kirby Smart had re-affirmed as the starter following an interesting spring camp competition with the early enrollee.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images /

These late-in-the-game decisions are the norm in the college football.

If the playoff quarterbacks tell us anything, it’s that the nation’s foremost coaches routinely make mistakes —Deshaun Watson, JT Barrett and Connor Cook all won their jobs after losing preseason competitions a la Sam Darnold. They use in-season play to determine winners and simply aren’t quick to pull the trigger well in advance (or at minimum, tell the media about it).

Expecting Helton to buck the trend during fall camp and ignore the time Sears and Fink have put into developing their games, however behind Daniels, is fruitless.

Of course, the 62 percent of playoff quarterbacks who win their job after the season starts are only bolstered by those around them.

Alabama can take their time every September because they’ve recruited and developed talent at a level no one has ever seen before in college football.

Clemson can afford to miss on Cole Stoudt and sit undecided between Bryant and Trevor Lawrence today, because it’s their world class defensive line that carries them into January on a yearly basis.

It’s why the success of JT Daniels —and the USC football program by extension— is ultimately a product of how well the Trojans’ inconsistent offensive line can block. And how well a potentially stout but typically bend-but-sometimes-break defense can take a step forward in Year 3 under defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast.

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If all of that comes to together, it won’t matter when Daniels, Sears or Fink rises to the top of the depth chart officially. Because it’s Jake Coker’s lifting of the national championship trophy Alabama fans remember, not his rep count in mid-August.

And in the Trojans’ case, it’s Darnold’s mastery in the fourth quarter of the Rose Bowl that landed them a No. 3 ranking in the final AP poll, not the team’s third September loss of the season.

Trust the process, as Saban would say.

Neither development of Daniels or the all-important offensive line is being stunted by waiting until gameweek to formally announce a starter. Otherwise, the country’s best coaches wouldn’t take their sweet time.