Most assumed replacing Cody Kessler as the Trojans starting quarterback was a done deal. Former five-star recruit Max Browne was supposed to seamlessly slide into the role and lead the Trojans onto AT&T field in September to face the Alabama Crimson Tide.
Not so fast.
Browne's strongest competition, redshirt freshman Sam Darnold, isn't going down without a fight. What was thought to be a large gap between the two at the start of the Spring appears to be rapidly closing.
"There is a gap and I think obviously Max [Browne] is in the lead right now," Helton said after practice last week. "But, you look at the plays that Sam [Darnold] has made over the last couple of practices; he is flashing some brilliance out there. The light's kind of coming on for him now."
As a senior in high school, Darnold passed for nearly 3,000 yards with 39 touchdowns, 8 interceptions, and close to 800 yards rushing. Despite being an athletic, nimble runner, Darnold is first and foremost a polished poised pocket passer, with sound, consistent mechanics. He was ESPN's 8th ranked pro-style quarterback, behind current fellow Pac-12 starting quarterbacks Josh Rosen (UCLA) and Jake Browning (Washington), and was USC's Offensive Service Team Player of the Year as a redshirt freshman in 2015.
Heading into 2016, nobody expected Darnold out of San Clemente High School in California to challenge Browne the way he has. He's not only garnering praise from inside the facility, but outside too. Fox Sports' Bruce Feldman recently visited Trojans practice and added to the chorus, complementing Darnold: "Darnold is a bit more athletic and seems to have the stronger arm [than Browne]."
That being said, while Darnold's hot right now, the gap shrinking between Darnold and Browne isn't reflective of Browne's performance. He is every bit as talented (if not more talented, if you trust high school rankings). In the not so distant past, Browne was a five star recruit out of Skyline High School in Washington, and one of the most highly regarded quarterbacks in the country.
To put things into perspective Browne was considered more talented than Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield, Penn State's Christian Hackenberg and even Cal's Jared Goff, the presumptive first quarterback to be drafted in this year's NFL Draft. Browne was recruited to USC by current Head Coach Clay Helton, and has worked hard and bided his time behind Cody Kessler without a murmur - something I doubt has gone unnoticed by Helton, the final decision-maker.
Darnold might be closing the gap, but to catch and then overtake Browne as the starter, will take something special. After spending three seasons on the sideline, you can rest assured knowing that Browne will take each and every opportunity he can to continue to hold onto his position as the presumptive starter.
Trojan fans, prepare for a battle!