QB Battles Are a USC Tradition

USC quarterback duels: Jaxson Dart-Kedon Slovis isn’t the first; here are five others

Jaxson Dart and Kedon Slovis are battling for the shot to start Saturday against Oregon State. (Young Kwak; Rick Bowmer / AP)

J. Brady McCollough (LA Times) —  Jaxson Dart has played in one college football game, and the freshman emerged from it as the Pac-12’s offensive player of the week.

Kedon Slovis has played in 21 games, passing for nearly 6,000 yards and 50 touchdowns, and the junior is widely considered a future first-round NFL draft pick.

USC interim head coach Donte Williams has billed what’s to come as a “quarterback battle,” but, because of injuries for each player, it’s unclear how much of it will be staged at this week’s practices leading into Saturday night’s game against Oregon State at the Coliseum.

The X-rays on Slovis’ neck injury sustained at Washington State — which led to Dart coming into the game — were negative, according to Williams. He expects Slovis to be available for practice. On Monday night during his appearance on “Trojans Live,” Williams revealed Dart has a knee issue and is “day to day.” For now, the Trojans plan to hold him out as a precaution.

If Slovis practices and Dart doesn’t, one would think he’ll take the first snap against the Beavers. But it appears the fight for the starting job has only begun.

Dart, the reigning Gatorade national player of the year, had his teammates raving about his play-making ability, with one comparing him to No. 3 overall NFL draft pick Sam Darnold, the last great Trojan quarterback.

Even at USC, where heated quarterback competitions have become the expectation the last two decades, this one feels like it could be quite spicy.

As a prelude to Slovis versus Dart, here’s a look at five quarterback decisions that shaped the modern era of USC football:

1985: Rodney Peete takes over for senior Sean Salisbury

In the fall of 1985, Sean Salisbury was USC’s all-time leading passer, a fifth-year senior who would go on to the Canadian Football League and the NFL. The last thing anybody would have expected was Salisbury losing his job to a redshirt freshman, but that’s exactly what happened after the Trojans started 4-4 and USC head coach Ted Tollner promoted the 19-year-old Peete.

“It could have been construed as a desperate move,” wrote The Times’ Mal Florence.

But Peete nearly beat Washington in his first start and took down UCLA and Oregon, helping the Trojans to the Aloha Bowl at 6-5, beginning a three-year run as the starter.

Before Peete’s emergence, the notion of a “quarterback controversy” at USC was unheard of because the only question was which guy was going to hand the ball off to the next star at “Tailback U.” The Peete years serve as a marker for how the importance of the USC quarterback changed over time, and it was no coincidence it happened right as Bill Walsh’s “West Coast Offense” was shaping the game’s future.

From there, in the 1990s, USC featured high-profile quarterbacks Todd Marinovich and Rob Johnson and threw the ball enough to woo Carson Palmer to campus.

2003: Matt Leinart beats Matt Cassel to replace Carson Palmer

USC quarterback Matt Leinart passes during a scrimmage in the spring of 2003 at the Coliseum.

Matt Cassel came to USC in 2000 out of Chatsworth High, where he was rated the No. 8 quarterback in his class back in the early days of recruiting rankings. He bided his time backing up Palmer for three years, and all he would have to do was beat out sophomore Matt Leinart to take over what would be an electric USC offense.

Leinart, the touted Santa Ana Mater Dei left-hander, edged Cassel in preseason camp and promptly beat Auburn on the road, leaving little doubt Pete Carroll and offensive coordinator Norm Chow had made the right call.

It was a different era, though, and Cassel would stay at USC for his final two seasons of eligibility, backing up Leinart, who like Palmer would win the Heisman Trophy in 2004. Ironically, Cassel would end up having the better NFL career, starting 81 games and making more than $65 million.

2007: John David Booty holds off Mark Sanchez

In 2006, Booty edged Sanchez, then a redshirt freshman, in fall camp. In 2007, USC began the season ranked No. 1, but Booty injured himself and threw four interceptions in Stanford’s 24-23 upset of USC that launched Jim Harbaugh’s coaching career into the big time.

The next two weeks, with Booty still on the mend, Sanchez started and beat Arizona and Notre Dame. Many Trojans fans were clamoring for the sophomore to keep the job the rest of the season, but after USC lost at Oregon 24-17 with Sanchez, Carroll went back to Booty for the rest of the year.

That season still doesn’t sit well with the USC faithful.

2013: Cody Kessler takes the reins from Matt Barkley

Four months into the Lane Kiffin era at USC in 2010, Kiffin secured the commitment of Max Wittek, the No. 2 pro-style quarterback in the 2011 recruiting class. Only two months later, Cody Kessler, the No. 4 pro-style quarterback in the class, showed that he was undeterred by Wittek’s presence and committed to the Trojans, too.

In the summer of 2013, it was time for them to duel with Matt Barkley finally out of the picture, but the two were so close in Kiffin’s eyes that the competition bled into the fall. The Trojans lost to Washington State 10-7 in their second game, with Kessler and Wittek both struggling in the defeat.

The next week, Kiffin chose Kessler, and he would lead USC for the next three seasons.

2016: Sam Darnold replaces Max Browne early

Max Browne, the No. 1 quarterback recruit in the country in 2013, waited his turn during all three years of the Kessler era. Given the hype around him, most figured he would have unseated Kessler by then, and maybe it should have been a sign of things to come that he never did.

Entering 2016, it almost felt like it would be Browne’s job by default. And, even though redshirt freshman Sam Darnold had an impressive preseason camp, then-USC coach Clay Helton (that feels surreal, doesn’t it?) went with Browne heading into the opener against Alabama in Arlington, Texas.

But the Crimson Tide brutalized USC 52-6, and, two weeks later, the Trojans fell 27-10 at Stanford. Helton saw enough and made the switch to Darnold, who would go 20-4 as a starter and lead USC to a stunning Rose Bowl victory in 2017 and a Pac-12 championship in 2017.

latimes.com

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Gabby
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September 23, 2021 10:09 pm

A walk down memory lane. Good stuff, Allen! IMO, Sam did the most with the least

danielmcd1
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September 23, 2021 12:32 pm

I will finally get to see my first live USC game this Saturday night on TV. I will date myself but I remember as a kid in 1962, which was an NCAA Championship year for John H. McKay, greatest USC football coach in my lifetime, we used two QB’s. We had Bill Nelson and Pete Beathard. God Bless both of them. That was an era of platoon football and the stats should support that they combines to bring USC McKay’s first NCAA Championship with both playing important roles in our success. I do not know if that is possible today… Read more »

Steveg
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September 23, 2021 1:20 pm
Reply to  Allen Wallace

Herbstreet agrees with me, his #1 pick for HC is Matt Ruhle. Make him say no or yes.

Jamaica
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September 22, 2021 11:57 am

Unless it has to happen due to Slovis being injured, I hope Coach Williams is patient enough to not rush Dart into the starting position. Slovis is definitely good enough to keep his job. Let Dart come in for clean-up duty to stay ready but he will be needed healthy when Sovis leaves. In the meantime, something has to be done about the OL. It’s the same old story: Can’t consistently open RB holes and puts the QB in danger in passing plays. How long is this going to be accepted?

UtahTrojan
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September 22, 2021 12:42 pm
Reply to  Allen Wallace

I would take that a year further Allen. Don’t know if we are going to get any quality OL in the next class (maybe one) and you just don’t see them In The portal.

Steveg
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September 22, 2021 2:11 pm
Reply to  Jamaica

A lot of times as I watch I wonder if it is the play calling. The entire universe knows USC cannot run straight ahead, especially in the red zone, yet they continue to run there. I have seen some success off tackle, but we do not have the speed to go real wide. Of course how we line up dictates which way the ball is going, unless we are in a two back set, which we are not often enough, so after watching game film the defense knows where we will run by the side the rb is set. So… Read more »

Chris
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September 22, 2021 3:40 pm
Reply to  Jamaica

Our O Line has a knack for getting our QB’s hurt, but Dart injured himself on a designed run play if I remember correctly. He kept it on a read option and banged into the ground.

Chris
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September 22, 2021 12:01 pm
Reply to  Allen Wallace

I just don’t know how to feel about Franklin. I think he would recruit like crazy, but I am not sure he would get us to more than just a good team. I know we would win the south every year under him and be with Oregon for conference. But I’m hoping for more, much more.

UtahTrojan
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September 22, 2021 12:41 pm
Reply to  Chris

I we need to be in the hunt for the NC and do not see Franklin as that guy.

Steveg
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September 22, 2021 2:13 pm
Reply to  UtahTrojan

I agree with Chris, Jam, and Utah. Franklin is a trendy name to kick around, but not for USC.

Steveg
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September 22, 2021 4:16 pm
Reply to  Allen Wallace

Allen, everyone has an opinion and when the new coach is hired there will be those that are unhappy or just completely outraged. Whoever they hire we fans have no alternative but to go with it as best we can. Of course here on the blog we will dissect the hire until we run out of stuff to say about it. I just hope the hire is not influenced by the media, that USC does its due diligence and gets it right whoever it is. I like Fickell, Stoops, Campbell, Harsin, Fleck, but my #1 pick would be Matt Ruhle,… Read more »

Chris
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September 22, 2021 4:37 pm
Reply to  Steveg

If we are going to take Franklin, I would roll the dice on Donte all day with a smaller salary and pay huge money for coordinators to surround him. Donte with a great staff with experience could be lights out. I’m positive he is as good a culture guy, leader, and recruiter as anyone we bring in. We just don’t know how well he puts it all together. If he wins the conference, he will shoot above anyone other than a legit big name in my opinion.

Steveg
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September 22, 2021 4:47 pm
Reply to  Chris

I am a big fan of Donte, and if he pulls it off and we see a new USC football team I am with you.

Jamaica
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September 22, 2021 5:20 pm
Reply to  Chris

Chris, if Mike Bohn can’t bring in a home run HC ( which is what we all want), then your suggestion makes sense. We know Donte can recruit like hell and for what we have seen so far, he is all energy at practice & on the sidelines in a game. You look at Saban & Sweeney. They are more organizers & game managers in their programs and surrounded by coordinators & position coaches that know their stuff. I believe that could work here too as a 2nd option.

Trojan5
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September 22, 2021 6:41 pm
Reply to  Allen Wallace

There is a lot more to being a HC than the x’s & o’s. Being responsible & accountable for everything from nutrition to weight training to discipline ( on and off the field) is a demanding work load for any coach and particularly for a coach who has never even been a co-ordinator.Is he ready to identify, attract and lead a coaching staff? Maybe, but USC can’t be a training ground again. They already have a big hole to climb out of. I Iike Donte and think has a lot of great qualities. But as each day goes by I… Read more »

alfa1
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September 23, 2021 9:27 am
Reply to  UtahTrojan

We are going to hear the prognostic exclamations for the next 4 months. Why are the main stream pundits squawking so loudly for Franklin….? Even Finebaum surprised me with his unwarranted acclamation for Franklin. Forget the Babble Bubble…. Franklin is a 9-10 maybe 11 win coach with a bit of consistency, however, he’s been at Penn State 8 seasons, has he taken his team to a Championship or even less a playoff spot…No. he’s the flashy guy that never quite made the Big Leagues his entire career. prudently, I think USC has to reach a bit higher for its next… Read more »

Jamaica
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September 22, 2021 1:32 pm
Reply to  Chris

I agree Chris. It just seems his teams play to a certain level but can’t win the big games that puts his teams into the league championship & the playoff. We need a HC that can get into the playoff consistently.

Golden Trojan
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September 22, 2021 3:17 pm
Reply to  Allen Wallace

I am watching Franklin and Fickell. Who takes their team further this season will be the college coach SC looks at. Fickell has ND next week. Franklin has OSU next month. Those will be key games. If Franklin gets past OSU, wins the conference and gets to the CFP his stock will be huge and may not want to leave PSU but we all will want him then.😥 If Fickell beats ND, he’s the guy.

alfa1
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September 23, 2021 9:43 am
Reply to  Allen Wallace

This year Michigan is going to be the bump in Franklins road to glory…perhaps Wisconsin as well.

ATL D.D.S.
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September 23, 2021 7:24 am
Reply to  Allen Wallace

No. No. No. 5% improvement over Helton. We can do much better.

UtahTrojan
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September 22, 2021 12:40 pm
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Lol. I think it is funny how many times I have seen it in articles. I have seen Billy Idol and Mel Gibson

Golden Trojan
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September 22, 2021 10:12 am

I wonder what Matt Cassell would do if he played college ball today? Things worked out well for him anyway but he may have had a great college career by transferring.
I had a flash back to the 06 season and seeing the “In the Moody for Booty” t shirts.
Also wonder what Sanchez would have done in the NFL if he stayed another year like Pete wanted him to.

Golden Trojan
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September 22, 2021 11:40 am
Reply to  Allen Wallace

If he hadn’t gone to the Jets it may have been better for him. Palmer going to the Bengals, Sanchez and Darnold going to the Jets were tough on their NFL careers. Still funny Cassell fairs the best going to the Patriots. All the other SC QBs mostly have been NFL backup/practice squad type guys. But hey they got to the NFL and got paid good money to play football.

UtahTrojan
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September 22, 2021 12:38 pm
Reply to  Allen Wallace

Better team? Yes.

Steveg
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September 22, 2021 2:16 pm
Reply to  Allen Wallace

I think Palmer was, although it is to bad he didn’t have the team around him at his caliber.

Golden Trojan
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September 22, 2021 3:05 pm
Reply to  Allen Wallace

14 year career as starter. 4 playoff games on 2 different teams. Palmer was a 4x Pro Bowl, Pro Bowl MVP 06, franchise records for Bengals and Cardinals. A guy who would have won a Super Bowl with a better team.

Jamaica
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September 22, 2021 1:46 pm
Reply to  Golden Trojan

No doubt about it, Sanchez, Darnold, Palmer, Barkley and a few before them were targets having hotshot names used as fodder to easily fill in a hole on a team not wining but still having owners needing to attract fan interest to buy tickets.

Steveg
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September 22, 2021 2:15 pm
Reply to  Golden Trojan

Cassell benefited by being mentored and taught by the GOAT.

UtahTrojan
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September 22, 2021 12:38 pm
Reply to  Allen Wallace

Once they figured him out.

danielmcd1
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September 23, 2021 12:45 pm
Reply to  Golden Trojan

We were loaded at QB in 2002. Cassell and Lienart backing up Heisman Trophy winner Carson Palmer. I am glad that Matt Cassell had a pro career and made some money. People that I have talked with who knew Matt said he is a terrific person. I always was rooting for him while he played. He did learn something at USC. He learned to be patient and opportunity does arise. Proud of all those three QB;s from 2002, We will find success this season, I feel it on the horizon Trojans, stay the course. To Victory!

RialtoTrojan
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September 22, 2021 9:54 am

I think this “quarterback controversy” is a tempest in a tea cup situation. I believe Coach Williams (sounds better) said all positions are going to battle for starting at game time. I understand the importance of a consistent quarterback, but I don’t know if this is smoke and mirrors to distract us from the real problem (the O-line) or if it is as I said just the media making something from nothing.

Trojan1967
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September 22, 2021 9:17 am

On Scottie’s old blog (that hasn’t been live since Helton was fired), Pudly noted (from someone else) that Jaxon may have some meniscus damage. Fingers crossed that isn’t the case…if any ortho surgeons are here, I hope they correct me if I am wrong, but my understanding is that repairing a meniscus tear is about a 10 week recovery (slow healing time of that tissue), and if it can’t be repaired, then it is shaved off, and in that case, return time would be 4-6 weeks or so.

Trojan1967
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September 22, 2021 9:48 am
Reply to  Allen Wallace

Exactly. I had one done as well a couple of years ago, in which the tear was just shaved off (it was in an area in which sewing it back together wasn’t possible), and I was good to go very soon afterwards.

Golden Trojan
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September 22, 2021 10:01 am
Reply to  Trojan1967

A meniscectomy, trimming the torn portion, has a quick recovery but long term increase chance of osteoarthritis. A meniscus repair can be done if the tear is along the outer vascular area, the recovery is slower to protect the healing repair, but long term less chance of OA in the knee.

Trojan1967
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September 22, 2021 10:30 am
Reply to  Golden Trojan

Thank you, Golden Trojan. Hopefully he heals fully and quickly.

Steveg
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September 22, 2021 2:17 pm
Reply to  Golden Trojan

So for now on we call you Dr. Golden.😆

Golden Trojan
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September 22, 2021 2:46 pm
Reply to  Steveg

Just a retired physical therapist, who rehabed a lot of knees.

Chris
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September 22, 2021 9:02 am

Some of these turned out to be no brainers. Leinart and Darnold being primary. Kessler just played and we never saw Wittek. Cody also stuck around in NFL for a few years, so I guess that was a no brainer as well. Sanchez was better than Booty and should have played, but it wasn’t a huge gap.

RialtoTrojan
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September 22, 2021 10:12 am
Reply to  Chris

I feel like the Danrold situation was the most frustrating for the player. Max Browne was all everything in high school and I remember watching him beat everybody in one of those quarterback camps before USC. But I also remember the “quarterback coach” who recruited him. If ever there was an example of the Helton effect, he is it. The harder he tried the worse he got. Helton put a deer in the headlights on the field for Alabama to plow into. (it’s a wonder he hasn’t sued for malpractice)

UtahTrojan
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September 22, 2021 12:44 pm
Reply to  RialtoTrojan

That could be any player under Helton. Even Toa regressed.

Steveg
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September 22, 2021 8:26 am

I liked Kessler because he was such a blue collar guy and worked his tail off to become the starter. He had a good line in front of him and had a good career at USC. Cassell was really good but Leinart was a winner.

UtahTrojan
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September 22, 2021 10:01 am
Reply to  Steveg

Tour comment about having a good line in front of him makes out current situation hurt. We will send to have such good linemen over the years. But under Helton he just seemed to refuse to get them.