LOS ANGELES — A couple of weeks ago, USC athletic director Lynn Swann laid out a clear expectation for the Trojans’ 2019 football season: win the Pac-12 championship.
“We want to be in the picture and the conversation about the national championship, on the national scene,” Swann said. “That’s where it starts.”
For someone in his position, it wasn’t exactly a bold declaration. Ask any coach or any player the same question going into a new season and there is a good chance they’ll echo some variation of what Swann said. Especially while speaking publicly. In fact, if Swann had stated any other goal or expectation, it probably would have seemed bizarre.
The more relevant question for Swann — not that he would seriously consider fielding it — isn’t what his expectations are, it’s: What will happen if those expectations aren’t met?
It was a fair question as USC stumbled to its first losing season (5-7) last year since 2000 and even more so after Swann felt compelled to send out a message to the “Trojan Family” at the end of the season to announce head coach Clay Helton would be retained. In that statement, Swann both praised Helton’s first two seasons (Rose Bowl victory in 2016; Pac-12 title in 2017) and identified broad deficiencies with the program’s “culture, discipline, schemes, personnel and staff.”
The widely held belief around college football is that Helton is coaching for his job in 2019. A Pac-12 title would surely save it, and another losing season would almost certainly spell the end. For points in between, it’s less clear.
That was the case when the season started, and that remains the case in the wake of the season-ending torn ACL, and meniscus injury quarterback JT Daniels suffered in Saturday’s 31-23 win against Fresno State.
Daniels was up-and-down as a true freshman last year, but because he arrived as one of the most accomplished, hyped recruits in recent memory, it was easy to buy into the idea he could make significant strides under the tutelage of new offensive coordinator Graham Harrell and his version of the Air Raid offense.
Instead, Helton, fresh out of mulligans, is again turning to a true freshman. Though it’s becoming more in vogue to roll with a true freshman starter in college football, it’s still a big bet for any FBS coach — and even more so for someone like Helton who doesn’t have the luxury of prioritizing the future over the present.
To add another layer to how unique this situation is, new starter Kedon Slovis didn’t arrive at USC as a can’t-miss prospect with several national suitors as is the norm at USC. Most of his scholarship offers came from Group of 5 programs, and his high school program, Desert Mountain High in Scottsdale, Arizona, isn’t exactly known for winning.
“I came from a school where we went 4-6 before I became a starter,” Slovis said. “And then when I was a starter, we were 6-5. And then my senior year, we only went 3-7.”
Though former NFL MVP Kurt Warner served as the offensive coordinator, Slovis was the only FBS player on the team. It was a difficult situation for him to prove himself.
For contrast, Daniels was a three-year starter for one of the preeminent high school football programs in the country, Southern California powerhouse Mater Dei, where he played with several other big-time college recruits and earned national player of the year honors.
“We’ve always trusted our evaluations on guys,” Helton said. “Whether it was Sam Darnold who wasn’t a really highly-recruited kid — I think he had only two Pac-12 offers when we offered him. We believe in our evaluation. In Kedon’s case, we saw a tremendous arm talent and we also saw an incredibly football knowledgeable kid.”
At USC camps over the summer, Helton said, Slovis held his own playing side-by-side against quarterbacks that received more buzz on the recruiting circuit. Watching him up close made it easier to see past the relative lack of production and accolades and award him a scholarship.
“To see the development wasn’t too big as he was competing with four- and five-star kids. The moment has never been too big for the kid. And I didn’t think it was too big [when he went in against Fresno State] for him. He walked out there bright-eyed and said, ‘Let’s go, Coach,’ and that’s who he’s been and who he has always been.
“We’ve been very fortunate that we’ve been able to sign some really talented kids here that aren’t afraid of competition and aren’t afraid of the moment and I look forward to seeing his next step and watching the opportunity he gets on Saturday [against Stanford].”
When Slovis enrolled at USC in the spring, the team already had three other scholarship quarterbacks on the roster: redshirt junior Matt Fink, redshirt sophomore Jack Sears and Daniels. Everyone was starting from square one in Harrell’s new system, but no one would have blamed Slovis had the spring served as more of an acclimation period than an opportunity to compete for the starting job.
The transition didn’t faze him. He quickly found success and got to a point where he thought it was in the realm of possibility that he could unseat Daniels. After coming in with a less prestigious resume, it was validating, Slovis said, and at the end of spring practice, Helton told him in a one-on-one meeting his mindset during fall camp should be to win the job.
“I doesn’t matter how young you are or how little experience you have, you have a chance,” Slovis said Helton told him. “So that’s the point where I really took things seriously.”
For Slovis, his performance during training camp was at times personally frustrating, but he did enough to beat out both Fink and Sears. He was disappointed not to win the job straight up, but acknowledged, “to be number two isn’t the worst thing in the world.”
On Saturday, Slovis watched Daniels go down right before halftime. It was clear right away he wouldn’t return, which afforded Slovis the opportunity to discuss the second-half plan with the coaching staff during the break.
“That was a long, 10 or 15 minutes, whatever it was,” he said. “I was thinking, ‘I just want to go out there now.’
“When Coach Harrell talked to me, it wasn’t anything about me being young or being experienced or trying to boost my confidence. He was talking strictly ball and I think that gave me a lot of confidence, knowing they weren’t worried about my inexperience or any of that.”
Slovis’ performance didn’t provide much to evaluate. After Daniels completed 25 of 34 passes for 215 yards in the first half, Slovis was just 6 of 8 for 57 yards and an interception in the second. The Trojans turned their 17-10 halftime lead into a 31-13 advantage only to see Fresno State storm back. USC could only exhale when Isaiah Pola-Mao intercepted what could have been a game-tying touchdown in the end zone with a minute and 45 seconds left.
By 2 a.m., Daniels texted Slovis to tell him the MRI on his right knee confirmed what was feared: his ACL was torn and he was out for the year.
“He said, ‘It’s your team now.’ It obviously sucks that he’s out for the season, but he was really encouraging. He really did a great job during the game and talking to me about what to expect since,” Slovis said. “You never know how people will react to that type of moment of adversity but he has done a really great job.”
As highly as Helton may think of Slovis, that he’s starting the Pac-12 opener against Stanford on Saturday still probably feels like a gut punch. There was a time not so long ago when it appeared the coach’s future would be tied to the combination of offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury, who left a month after being hired to become head coach of the Arizona Cardinals, and Daniels.
Instead, he’s sitting on the hot seat with secondary choices in both roles.