LOS ANGELES (AP) — Two weeks before Southern California’s first game after Sam Darnold, the star quarterback’s successor still hasn’t been chosen.
Coach Clay Helton has been auditioning three passers for the job. Freshman JT Daniels appears to be leading the group, but slightly more experienced returnees Jack Sears and Matt Fink are still competing.
If this uncertainty bothers Helton, he doesn’t reveal it. In his third full season in charge of this glamorous program, the folksy coach has learned to embrace the daily thrill of elite players battling for starting spots, knowing it will probably lead to excitement in the fall.
“That’s the opportunity of SC,” Helton said. “Now it’s their opportunity to compete. The guy that is the best player for the moment is going to walk out there. There are going to be several young players that have that opportunity.”
The Trojans have their usual wealth of talent at Helton’s disposal as they attempt to defend their first Pac-12 title since 2008. They’ve got enviable depth at most skill positions, and their defense appears to be balanced well between experience and raw talent.
But they don’t have Darnold, who won a Rose Bowl and a conference crown in just two seasons as the starter before landing with the New York Jets.
Whoever gets the job won’t have the luxury of growing into it, and any early struggles will be magnified: After a Sept. 1 season opener at home against a solid UNLV team, the Trojans make back-to-back road trips to Stanford and Texas. The inexperienced quarterback will face the Cardinal’s intimidating defense before being thrown into the tumult of Austin.
Helton retains his steady optimism in the face of this potential drama, and his players have followed his lead through a largely quiet training camp. The Trojans’ overall ability is obvious, and Helton’s staff is busy identifying the talent that will lead them.
“Now it’s their opportunity to compete,” Helton said. “The guy that is the best player for the moment is going to walk out there. There are going to be several young players that have that opportunity.”
Here are more things to watch this season:
NEW TARGET: The Trojans’ next quarterback appears to have a new game-breaking receiver in freshman Amon-Ra St. Brown, who just happens to be Daniels’ former teammate at Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana. St. Brown and Daniels showed off their outstanding connection in a Coliseum scrimmage earlier this month, and St. Brown appears to be the next star in the recent USC lineage including Robert Woods, Marqise Lee, Nelson Agholor and JuJu Smith-Schuster, among others.
WITH THE BALL: USC also lost speedy tailback Ronald Jones II to the NFL, but Stephen Carr already established himself as an elite ball-carrier during his injury-plagued freshman year. Carr is healthy, and he has plenty of the usual competition at Tailback U.: Aca’Cedric Ware is ready for the spotlight after waiting three years as a backup to Jones, and Vavae Malepeai leads a list of capable contenders.
UNDER CONSTRUCTION: Many USC fans might not have a season to remember at the Coliseum, which is in the middle of a two-year, $300 million renovation project . Parking and tailgating areas will be severely limited for the Trojans’ six home games, and amenities inside the venerable stadium will be reduced. While there’s sure to be drama outside the stadium while fans get used to the changes, the finished product — which includes new, modern seating throughout the concrete bowl — should be worth the wait.
BIG D: Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast could have eight returning starters on the field, with Malik Dorton and Christian Rector taking a leadership role and redshirt freshman Jay Tufele pushing for immediate impact. Veteran linebackers Cameron Smith and Porter Gustin are likely to lead, while Iman Marshall and Marvell Tell are returning to the secondary.
SCHEDULE: The Trojans have another difficult September schedule, putting themselves in danger of a slow start. USC’s brutal beginnings to most of their recent seasons are a joint product of program pride, lucrative nonconference matchups and the Pac-12 schedule quirk that matches USC and Stanford in the opening weeks of every season. Even if the new quarterback survives that gauntlet, his next challenge is a Friday night visit from Washington State.