Max Browne, Sam Darnold set for intriguing quarterback competition at USC

LOS ANGELES -- Not much has changed for USC quarterback Max Browne as the Trojans prepare to play Wisconsin in the National Funding Holiday Bowl on Dec. 29. As he has the past two seasons, Browne is readying himself to play in case he’s needed in relief of starter Cody Kessler, who is set to play his final collegiate game.

But with Kessler’s career about to conclude, Browne can’t help but have one eye fixed on the spring, when the competition to replace Kessler will truly begin.

“I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t the case,” Browne said.

A much-heralded recruit in the Class of 2013, Browne arrived at USC as the No. 2-ranked quarterback in the country. While other members of his class -- such as Cal’s Jared Goff and Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg -- stepped in right away and now are pondering NFL futures, Browne has needed to stay patient.

He redshirted his first year on campus under coach Lane Kiffin and was given the opportunity to compete with Kessler when Steve Sarkisian arrived in the spring of 2014. Kessler, though, had started every game the previous season and it came as no surprise when he retained his job.

In two years as the backup, Browne’s opportunities to play have been scarce. He’s completed 11 passes on just 19 attempts, none of which have occurred in the last nine games.

Despite the limited chances, Browne, who already has graduated, still is the favorite to be at quarterback when USC opens next season against Alabama in Arlington, Texas. However, it’s far from a guarantee.

Sam Darnold, who redshirted this season and impressed during fall camp and on the scout team, has USC coaches excited about the looming competition.

“They’re different in their own rights,” USC quarterbacks coach Marques Tuiasosopo said. “Max is a strong pocket thrower, who is very accurate. I want him to gain more command of the offense so his confidence in every situation is high, and if he gets that done, he can be as good as he wants to be.”

Both quarterbacks pass the eye test -- Browne is listed at 6-foot-5, 220 pounds and Darnold at 6-foot-4, 215 pounds -- but Darnold is a much better athlete.

“[Darnold] adds that athletic element to it, but he can be a great pocket passer too,” Tuiasosopo said. “Live arm. He does have an ace up his sleeve in his ability to run. For him coming in, it’s just about gaining as much confidence in what we do so he can play fast and be decisive.

“Max has been here awhile, so he’s a little ahead, but one thing I love about Sam is his competitive nature about him. Chip on his shoulder and he’s not afraid to let everyone know that he’s here to compete.”

With former receivers coach Tee Martin being named offensive coordinator, the Trojans are not expected to have any wholesale offensive changes, and Kessler is the only projected starter in the bowl game who won't be back next year. With a Biletnikoff Award candidate in JuJu Smith-Schuster and two talented running backs in Justin Davis and Ronald Jones II returning, whoever wins the job steps into an envious position -- other than the whole making-his-first-start-against-Alabama thing, of course.

Coach Clay Helton, who served as the quarterbacks coach until being elevated to interim coach early in the season, likes what he’s seen from Browne and Darnold from a maturity standpoint.

“Really how they’ve been students of the game as far as learning, picking things up, then the elite arm talent that both of them have,” Helton said. “They’re going to be really, really talented quarterbacks here. I think this has been a great year for them to learn under a senior quarterback and looking forward to what they can do in the future.”

Browne and Darnold, who have grown close, are both realists about what lies ahead.

“We know the coaches put a lot of time and effort and they’re going to do what they can to make the right decision,” Darnold said. “We always talk to each other about it; we bring it up to each other. Coaches are going to be real. Me and him talk about controlling what we can control.”

It's too early to handicap any kind of timetable for how long the competition will last, but it should be one of the most interesting position battles in college football.