Sam Darnold is now in the position that USC’s newly anointed starting quarterback found himself a couple years ago. He’s an exciting new possibility who many fans openly prefer over an incumbent or front runner.
For all the USC fans enamored with the shiny newness and potential four-year stability of Sam Darnold (and that’s not a criticism), many of them were the same ones enamored with the exact same potential of Max Browne three years ago. And there’ll be many of the same who in two years are dismissing redshirt junior Darnold in favor of another freshman.
"Sam Darnold’s athleticism creates another dimension; Browne is too much of a statue" is this year’s version of "Max Browne has the arm strength and build that Cody Kessler can’t compete with."
It’s been generally acknowledged that Browne’s experience gave him an edge over Darnold. The other side of this is that it leads some people to claim that this was simply a battle of experience versus talent.
As an athlete it’s not even a question - Sam Darnold is by far the more talented athlete and supporters are right in that he does create another dimension to USC’s offense (although Browne displayed more mobility than he’s given credit for this fall). Darnold also showed that he has the arm and, more importantly, the understanding of Xs and Os that often elude dual-threat quarterbacks. So yeah, he’s gonna be good.
But the supporters of Darnold starting right away tend to imply arguments that Browne’s experience disproportionately affected the decision, and that’s not true. Besides the dual-threat dimension, we saw the type of back and forth battle that proved how close these two were in physical capabilities and understanding the offense and defenses.
Since they seem so close, it’s natural that many people wanted to go with the younger guy; the prospect of three or four years with one quarterback under center is so tempting, and freshmen are starting now more than ever.
But if USC wants to win the most games now, Max Browne’s the guy for the same reason that, in all likelihood, Sam Darnold will be the guy in two years.
Because look at the freshmen, redshirt or otherwise, that played in the FBS the last few years - Brett Rypien, Josh Rosen, Jake Browning, Luke Falk in the latter half of 2014. No amount of talent - and they have plenty - could overcome the inevitable mistakes that come with learning how to play college football.
It’s easy to think that unless a quarterback is starting he’s making about as much progress as if he were off twiddling his thumbs on the bench. People forget how much a player learns behind the scenes when he’s not QB1. Max Browne has made it clear how well he knows USC’s offense, and he’s also had three years of learning about college defenses. Browne will still make mistakes just like every quarterback, but those three years have been critical; it only takes one poorly timed mistake to cost a game, and his familiarity means he’ll be all the more likely to avoid them.
The same thing goes with Darnold. If you think he’s good now, wait until he gets his chance. With a year or two of backup experience and the ability to make his mistakes away from the lights of Saturday, Sam Darnold will be a great quarterback. But now is Browne’s time.