What We Learned: Why USC named JT Daniels its starting quarterback and Kedon Slovis No. 2
The worst-kept secret at USC is now public to all: JT Daniels is the starting quarterback.
Coach Clay Helton, after meeting with offensive coordinator Graham Harrell over the weekend following Saturday's scrimmage in the Coliseum, informed the team Tuesday that Daniels had won the job.
"It was the consistency that he had over 30 practices," Helton said. "He was consistent day in and day out in doing his assignments and making the plays and moving the team. ... He did a wonderful job within the system, from his accuracy, his decision-making, getting the ball out on rhythm, and just being consistent, every day."
It's a development that was obvious for months, given Daniels' performance in practice coupled with his more natural fit in the offense compared to fellow returners Jack Sears and Matt Fink. The real intrigue surrounded where rookie Kedon Slovis would fall. Helton said the 18-year-old will begin the season No. 2, followed by Fink and then Sears. Helton noted he, offensive coordinator Graham Harrell and the rest of the offensive staff were on the same page with that pecking order.
While the decision to go with a true freshman as the primary backup is a bold one, his performance in practice made it hard not to. There also isn't a worry about an immediate transfer. Fink, after falling on the depth chart in spring, briefly entered the transfer portal only to return to USC and pledge to stay for his final two years with the understanding that he's unlikely to play. Sears, meanwhile, is finishing his undergraduate degree this fall. The redshirt sophomore did make sure to participate in graduation ceremonies in May, so he's been prepared for such a scenario all along.
What couldn't have been expected is Slovis being the second-best QB since he arrived in January. Sources tell me the staff felt his play in spring was so good, it played a factor in USC not announcing Daniels earlier.
"We went in and said it wasn't going to be about age or where you're from. It was going to be about who was the most productive," Helton said. "We were very surprised with Kedon coming out of the spring, very impressed. We went through this camp, another 15 practices, to see if it was just spring and he did it again."
Wide receiver Michael Pittman added: "For a freshman, I thought he really outdid himself. I'm excited for what he can do going forward. Kedon won't stop here. Kedon's going to go on and do great things, here and at the next level."
While it wasn't always clear in a given practice who the best quarterback was, Daniels' strong performances in both of the Trojans' scrimmages in training camp separated him from the pack.
"I feel like it came down to the last day of practice," Pittman said.
Like last year, the decision could hold until the last day of the season. Helton insisted that Daniels needs to approach his position like he must win it every day but also said Daniels would only be replaced for injury or lack of production. Of course, the latter didn't come to fruition in 2018, as Daniels struggled mightily in the second half of the season while the team lost five of its final six games.
"I don't like people looking over their shoulder," Helton said. "I like them to be able to play."
It's a sentiment that runs somewhat contrast to what he said at Pac-12 Media Day in July where he insisted the depth chart wouldn’t be released until the day before each game during the season and would be subject to change.
The expected improvement from Daniels, who started 11 games last season and is a more natural fit in the Air Raid than the "Gumbo" spread USC had been running previously, could make the depth chart a moot point.
"The biggest difference with him in this offense, I feel like it really shows his arm capabilities," Pittman said. "It shows his touch, it shows his ability to scan defenses."
Committing to Daniels now rather than Aug. 30 should also pay immediate dividends, as reps have been split almost evenly between the four quarterbacks dating back to March. For what it's worth, Pittman wasn't concerned with the lack of time he and the remainder of the first-team offense worked with Daniels in training camp.
"The offense is very basic," he said. "It doesn't take weeks or months to master."
The media was not allowed to watch Tuesday's practice (save for a period of brief stretching and individual drills) but here are a few other depth chart selections of note, via sources...
Jalen McKenzie was with the first team at right tackle and Andrew Vorhees at right guard. When Drew Richmond rotated in at right tackle, McKenzie slid over to right guard, as he's been doing for the past week.
Running back Vavae Malepeai, who returned after being out for two weeks with a knee injury, took the bulk of reps with the starters.
Tight ends Josh Falo and Erik Krommenhoek continued to split reps with the ones.
In the secondary, Olaijah Griffin and Isaac Taylor-Stuart were the primary cornerbacks, and Chase Williams was at nickel.
WR Devon Williams did not practice because of a quad contusion. LB Abdul-Malik McClain was also out. LB Hunter Echols, who's battled turf toe, returned.