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USC spring game provides no answers for quarterback competition

LOS ANGELES -- Max Browne's calm, measured demeanor is part of what USC coach Clay Helton likes about the Trojans’ presumed starting quarterback. His poise and ability to manage the game stand out from the rest of the USC quarterbacks.

But after that, Helton’s rationale for why Browne leads the competition to replace Cody Kessler is somewhat ambiguous. It’s clear he benefits from having been around the program longer, but he’s never started a game and doesn’t have any meaningful playing time. Everything he does well, Sam Darnold seemingly does, too -- and Darnold, a freshman after redshirting in the fall, is a much better athlete.

“I really thought coming into [spring] you would expect there to be a big separation between Max and the rest of the quarterbacks,” Helton said after the spring game last Saturday.

There hasn’t been. And the longer the competition goes -- Helton confirmed Monday it will go into fall camp -- the more opportunities Darnold will have to mitigate Browne’s head start. Browne is certainly aware of that, but he has embraced his newfound leadership role this spring and handled repeated questions about the uncertainty surrounding his role about as well as possible.

“My goal was to win the job at the end of the spring. Didn’t happen, but not the end of the world,” Browne said. “I’m going to do what I’ve done the past three and a half years. Going to dominate this offseason, going to lead the guys and going to come back ready for fall camp.”

Browne’s inability to create enough separation to force Helton’s hand has to be considered a win for Darnold.

“I guess you could say that because Max has a lot of experience,” Darnold said. “But we’re just got to keep doing our thing and when the decision is made, the decision is made.”

Helton isn’t shy when it comes to handing out praise, so sometimes it can be hard to decide how much weight to give it, but he has consistently painted Darnold as a play-maker. On Saturday, he said there were flashes of brilliance and that he was shocked how far along Darnold had progressed in his first spring.

Usually, though, that playmaker label comes with a caveat: the player is prone to mistakes. That’s not the case here. Darnold has been accurate all spring and connected on 6 of 7 passes for 63 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the spring game -- which wasn’t so much a game as it was a series of game-like situations. Browne was good, too -- 7-for-11, 114 yards, three touchdowns -- but the showcase made it clear Helton’s ultimate decision wasn’t as obvious as it seemed prior to spring.

“Coach Helton met with us and said he’s got the luxury of having two great quarterbacks, two future NFL quarterbacks and the best guy is going to play,” Browne said.

What complicates the competition is that Browne has graduated and it would be in his best interest -- from a playing-time standpoint -- to transfer immediately if he doesn’t win the job. With former USC quarterback Matt Cassell the glaring exception, college backups don't play in the NFL. So if the competition is close -- which it likely will be -- Browne has that in his favor.