Darnold can spark the rest of the season
Nick Entin | Daily TrojanRedshirt freshman quarterback Sam Darnold received his fair share of playing time. Here, he slings one of his seven pass attempts.Football head coach Clay Helton made sure to emphasize that his original starting quarterback should not be a scapegoat. There are plenty of reasons why the 2016 Trojan football team has not gotten off to the start or shown the potential that it is capable of. USC’s problems include discipline on penalties, focus on missed assignments and an underutilization of all the talent available on the offensive end.But Helton is right to realize that the struggles on offense all start with the signal caller. The Trojans can and should be the kind of team to compete with playoff contenders, but the team has only put up one touchdown in two games against ranked opponents in Stanford and Alabama. USC is in need of a spark.Going into the season, picking redshirt junior Max Browne to be the starter seemed to be the safe bet for the season, whereas letting redshirt freshman Sam Darnold start would be more of a short-term risk with a potential long-term benefit. Browne had the experience as a redshirt junior, and while Darnold was the better athlete with more upside, it would make sense to let Browne start now, have Darnold wait for his turn in the future, but still be included in those couple of third down or red zone situations when mobility was of extra importance.Whether or not the decision to demote Browne and hand over the keys of the offense to Darnold pays off will be unknown until the end of the season. In fact, this isn’t even the end of the quarterback competition that started back in the spring, because Darnold could also hypothetically underperform and prove to be unworthy of keeping the job.After playing well at times during his limited appearances so far this season, Darnold has earned himself at least a shot. The Trojans weren’t expected to beat either Stanford or Alabama, and a 1-2 record at this point is neither catastrophic nor even surprising. But the offense has definitely underperformed, and Browne has not developed much of a rhythm with his receivers.Even if there were a touch of forward thinking that went into Helton’s mind when making this decision, giving Darnold the ball just might also be the catalyst toward the divisional or conference championship that should be the expectation for any Trojan team. That is still the standard of this program, even during the years with a freshman quarterback, a first-year coach, an impossible schedule and a below-average start.The playoff is still a mathematical possibility for a two-loss Pac-12 team. Two losses were enough to keep Stanford out of the playoff last year, despite winning the conference and proving to be far superior over the Big 10’s representative in Iowa in the Rose Bowl, because every other Power Five conference winner had only one loss, making the decision easy enough for the CFP selection committee. Given how awful the Big 12’s start has been, the best of the west should not be the odd team out again this year, especially if there’s one other two-loss conference winner.Even if this likely won’t be the season the Trojans reach their pinnacle again and it takes Helton more than a season to achieve national power status again, the Trojans absolutely still have something to play for this season. Darnold will almost definitely be the man leading those future USC teams hopefully back toward more consistent and legitimate playoff contention. This experience as a starter should be beneficial to his confidence and development as a quarterback in those future campaigns, and the only thing that would likely stop him from reaching his full potential as a prospect would be if he is hindered by nagging injuries toward the end of his USC career — that was at least the case with Barkley, who played well his first two seasons, catapulted onto Heisman watch lists after a breakout junior season, but fell well short of expectations as a senior and missed his final game because of a shoulder problem.For the sake of winning the South Division now, the move might not be worth it. Even with a less-than-phenomenal game manager rather than game changer QB in Browne, I still think this current team is better than UCLA, better than Utah, and is still the favorite to defend its division title. Even with the tiny sample against Stanford, Darnold seems more vulnerable to throw the costly interception in a big moment against a tough conference opponent than Browne does.At this point in the season, though, seeing what kind of additional upside Darnold has as a starter is worth it. His couple of series showed that he can bring the same accuracy and poise that Browne had with a little more athleticism and versatility.Either way, if Darnold succeeds and keeps the job, or Helton goes back to Browne again, the Trojan season is far from over. What really matters for the Trojans is divisional play, and the Trojans have an above average shot at finishing the next five conference games without a loss, which would put them at 6-2 going into a matchup with Oregon. The test on Friday against Utah will obviously be crucial, and the Trojans aren’t where they want to be, but they’re not that far off from where they need to be.Luke Holthouse is a senior majoring in policy, planning and development and print and digital journalism. His column, “Holthouse Party,” runs on Wednesday.