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Clay Helton chooses Max Browne — that’s only half the story at USC

Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire

No matter your team or conference or which network you watch on fall Saturdays during the college football season, there is one name you will inevitably come to know: the name of the USC starting quarterback.

Even before Pete Carroll resurrected the program, USC was known for its signal-callers, either through their play on the field or movie-star looks in the heart of Los Angeles.

There was Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart, John David Booty and Mark Sanchez, Matt Barkley and, most recently, Cody Kessler. Palmer won the Heisman, as did Leinart. Booty was All-Pac-10 First Team and Rose Bowl MVP. So was Sanchez. Barkley and Kessler made their way into the record books and the NFL.

While Palmer is the only one who can genuinely boast a successful NFL career, it is a testament to USC that the Trojans have sent every starting quarterback to the NFL for nearly two consecutive decades. It’s quite strange, then, that over the offseason one of the dominant narratives in college football has been the uncertainty at the team’s quarterback position.

Kessler graduated and left behind massive shoes to fill, though not any larger than his predecessors before him. This very success, year after year, is USC’s best recruiting tool: If nothing else, the Trojans will send their quarterback to the next level.

Max Browne and Sam Darnold are no scrubs. Browne was a five-star recruit out of high school. A fourth-year junior, he has been groomed under Kessler, is well-educated in the Trojans’ offense, and is familiar with the many talented pieces around him.

More importantly: Browne can play some ball.

Coming out of high school, Browne was the top-ranked quarterback of his class, which included Jared Goff and Christian Hackenberg. Goff, who broke nearly every record there was to break under center at Cal, was taken by the Los Angeles Rams with the No. 1 overall pick in this year’s NFL Draft. Hackenberg is now with the New York Jets.

Browne was thought to be better than each of them.

He just hasn’t had the chance to prove it … until this season. Clay Helton named Browne as USC’s starter on Saturday.

Neither, however, has Darnold, a freshman who has been nothing less than spectacular in the final two weeks of training camp, throwing just one interception compared to Browne’s six. Helton, in his first full year at the helm, has gone as far to proclaim that Darnold will win the Heisman one year, though which year is the question. It wouldn’t be a surprise if Browne was capable as well.

“At the end of the day I’m going to sit down I’m going to weigh all the tape and I’m going to see who is the best person to lead our team and to help us win football games,” Helton said Thursday after practice.

Clearly, Helton arrived at the conclusion that Browne was the better man.

This shouldn’t be seen as a diminishment of Darnold, but an elevation of Browne. More specifically, it should be viewed as the product of USC having two really good options at quarterback, as opposed to any two-person race which becomes a competition to determine which man is “less flawed” or “less inclined to lose games with horrible mistakes.”

USC doesn’t recruit quarterbacks who make their foremost contributions to the team solely by avoiding interceptions. The Trojans go for winners, ambitious players who fearlessly make huge plays in crunch-time situations. Helton surely believes Max Browne will be that kind of player in 2016 … and that Sam Darnold will be that player in due time.

USC is going to win football games. It’s simply too talented not to, and that includes the quarterback position.

Even if Helton waffles after the Alabama game and shifts to Darnold later in the season, there is no wrong choice. Browne will one day throw passes on Sundays. Barring something odd, so will Darnold.

Max Browne is the man at USC.

That’s only a part of a much larger story, a consistent ability to cultivate great quarterbacks who play in the NFL.

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