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Clay Helton Learns From His Past Mistake, Chooses Upside Over Seasoning With JT Daniels

Clay Helton made the right decision this time by opting to start JT Daniels from the get-go, rather than throwing him into the fire midseason like Sam Darnold two years ago.

Nearly nine years ago, Pete Carroll made a historic decision for the USC program: He tabbed Matt Barkley as starting quarterback, making Barkley the first true freshman ever to start the season under center for the Trojans. 

USC announced Sunday night that 18-year-old JT Daniels will join fellow Mater Dei High School alum Barkley in that exclusive group. After reclassifying to enroll in college a year early, Daniels impressed throughout fall camp and showed that his arm gave USC’s offense the highest potential ceiling.

This decision also shows that USC coach Clay Helton was unafraid to roll the dice on a teenager leading his team, having learned his lesson from two years ago. 

In 2016, before starting his first full season as head coach, Helton was faced with a dilemma at the most important position in football. Redshirt junior Max Browne was viewed as the favorite to succeed Cody Kessler at quarterback, but a redshirt freshman named Sam Darnold was continually stealing the show at practice. The year before, Darnold even drove fellow incoming freshman and five-star QB Ricky Town—the highest-rated signal-caller in his recruiting class, who had been viewed as USC’s future savior when he committed—to decide to transfer one week into fall camp. 

Despite Darnold looking like the better option, Helton went with his trusted veteran Browne to kick off the season against Alabama in Arlington, Texas. 

The decision backfired. 

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The Trojans were thoroughly embarrassed by the Crimson Tide in a 52–6 drubbing, one of the worst losses in program history. After an easy home win over Utah State, USC’s offense struggled to find its rhythm again in a 27–10 loss to Stanford. 

Browne was the starter for all three games, although Darnold was rotated in for a drive or two in each. It was clear Helton wasn’t comfortable with his initial decision, and he officially made the switch to Darnold before the season's fourth game, at Utah. USC lost a tight battle in Salt Lake City, then went on to rip off nine straight wins, including a thrilling Rose Bowl victory over Penn State. 

But the damage of not choosing Darnold from the get-go was done. The Trojans were arguably the hottest team in the country to end the year, but their College Football Playoff hopes were dashed by the three early losses with Browne at the helm. Had Helton gone with talent over experience before the Alabama opener, a different story might have been written for the 2016 season.  

Granted, the quarterback decision was easier this time. Redshirt freshman Jack Sears and redshirt sophomore Matt Fink didn’t have the years of practice reps and pedigree that Browne had. However, after his struggles in the spring, Sears came into his own in fall camp to make the competition more interesting. In the end though, Daniels has been tabbed as the final piece to a team that hopes to defend its Pac-12 championship.

After the season opener against UNLV, Daniels and the Trojans face stiff tests throughout the rest of September. They have back-to-back road trips to Stanford and Texas, a Friday night home game on short rest against Washington State and then a showdown with trendy Pac-12 South sleeper Arizona in Tucson. 

Barkley faced a similarly daunting schedule to start his true freshman season. After opening against San Jose State, he grinded out a 18–15 road victory over No. 8 Ohio State in his second career start, the type of game that is essential for a young quarterback to get acclimated to the college level. The 2009 Trojans also won back-to-back road games against No. 24 California and No. 25 Notre Dame in the first two weeks of October.

While Darnold did perform admirably in a losing effort at Utah in his starting debut, it would’ve helped him to have the necessary reps in the games prior, like Barkley had vs. San Jose State before entering the frenzied atmosphere in Columbus. 

USC is currently a 26-point home favorite against UNLV, giving Helton a perfect situation to get Daniels more comfortable in the pocket and used to analyzing a college defense before the real tests arrive. Like Barkley and Darnold before him, Daniels gives the Trojans the best chance at a successful season despite his inexperience. There will be bumps and bruises along the way, but when faced with a decision that will be tied to his legacy at USC, Helton made sure not to repeat the same mistake again.