Will USC have a quarterback battle on its hands in 2020 after Kedon Slovis’ record-setting season and JT Daniels’ return from a season-ending injury?
Who is USC’s starting quarterback?
It’s a question that will follow the Trojans into Spring Camp and potentially into the season opener, if Clay Helton’s penchant for delaying announcing a starter until the mock game week holds.
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On the surface, there’s an easy answer. Kedon Slovis started the majority of the games in 2019 and he returns for his sophomore year with Heisman odds already in place.
But that’s not stopping USC fans from pondering the JT Daniels question.
After all, Daniels came to USC with tons of fanfare. He was a five-star recruit from high school powerhouse Mater Dei and managed to win the starting job in just a few weeks of Spring Camp competition in 2018.
However, the 2018 season didn’t go to plan for USC as the Trojans fell to 5-7. Daniels showed flashes of brilliance, but problems, including a bloated scheme and a subpar offensive line, limited the quarterback and his offense.
Hopes were higher for 2019 with the transition to Graham Harrell’s Air Raid. Unfortunately for Daniels, he only got to spend a half of football running that offense. After throwing for 215 yards and a touchdown against Fresno State, he was sacked and tore his ACL, ending his season early.
Slovis, who surprised by rising into the backup position as an unheralded true freshman, took over and delivered a flawless performance against Stanford, completing 84.8 percent of his passes with 377 yards, three touchdowns and a passer rating of 210.81.
He went on to set a Pac-12 record for a completion rating of 71.9 percent. He also set the USC record for passer rating in a season at 167.65. In the final three games of the regular season, he racked up at least 400 yards and four touchdowns. That’s a Trojan record as well.
Even before Slovis factored in as a starter, Harrell was singing his praises.
“Kedon is a special talent,” Harrell said in August. “Talentwise, he’s as good as I’ve ever seen.”
Slovis’ command of Harrell’s offense certainly justified those words. He scored 30 touchdowns, delivering passes into tight windows underneath and with accuracy downfield while displaying poise in the pocket.
So where does that leave Daniels, the former starter?
Given Slovis’ success in a quarterback-friendly system, there is a valid question about whether or not Daniels could achieve just as many records had he remained healthy all year.
On the other hand, having seen what Slovis could do as a true freshman in his first year in the offense, Harrell has every reason to stick with the quarterback who carried him all season.
Talk of a fierce competition between the two will have to wait though.
Daniels is recovering from his knee injury and is unlikely to participate in Spring Camp practices. That means Slovis will have a handful of weeks on the practice field to solidify his place at the top of the depth chart before Daniels is healthy enough to jump into the race.
For his part, Daniels has already proven he can begin a competition late and still prevail. Accomplishing the same feat this year would be extraordinarily impressive.
Even if an August return is too late for Daniels to really make a run at Slovis, USC’s track record at quarterback in 2019 highlights how the Trojans may need to turn to their backup at any moment. Along with Daniels’ injury, Slovis himself missed the Utah and Washington games with a concussion, had to come out for a drive against ASU and was knocked out of the Holiday Bowl with an elbow strain.
There is as much a possibility Daniels will have the opportunity to win his starting job back during the season as before it.
For now, Slovis’ performance in 2019 was too good to expect a change at quarterback going into 2020. While all positions should feature competition for starting roles, and quarterback is no different, Slovis is simply the favorite to prevail in whatever competition emerges. So until further notice, he is USC’s presumptive starter.