Helton, USC look to maintain success without QB Darnold

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Southern California looks to defend its Pac-12 title with a new quarterback.

The Trojans' effort to find a successor to Sam Darnold started in earnest when they opened practice Friday night. Touted freshman JT Daniels joined redshirt sophomore Matt Fink and redshirt freshman Jack Sears in the three-man race.

"They are ready to compete. That's really as much as I can say," running back Aca'Cedric Ware said. "Whoever ends up the starting quarterback, I'll be happy with."

Darnold went 20-4 as a starter, becoming the first passer in school history to throw for 4,000 yards in a season and leading USC to its first Pac-12 Conference championship since 2008. He was drafted third overall by the New York Jets in April after forgoing his final two seasons of eligibility, leaving coach Clay Helton to preside over his second quarterback competition in three years.

Fink was Darnold's backup last season, appearing in three games and rushing for a 51-yard touchdown against Oregon State. Sears is trying to fill Darnold's shoes for the second time, having replaced him in high school in San Clemente, California. Daniels was the 2017 Gatorade national high school player of the year. He could become the second freshman to start a season opener for USC after reclassifying to join the Trojans early.

All three had their moments on the first day of camp. Daniels threw a 40-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr., but the 18-year-old also had a pass intercepted by cornerback Ajene Harris for the day's only turnover. Sears found freshman Devon Williams for a long touchdown during 7-on-7s, and Fink was the steadiest of the trio.

Helton said he would name a starter before the season opener against UNLV on Sept. 1, but doesn't expect to make a decision anytime soon.

Once USC starts practicing in full pads next week, Helton plans to put Fink, Sears and Daniels in as many high-pressure situations as possible to test their decision-making.

"When you get in team segments, and you get in live scrimmages and (outside linebacker) Porter Gustin is breathing down your neck, and you're stepping up and making that throw and making it accurately and on time, that puts a lot of weight on me," Helton said. "Throwing nice balls on routes on air is nice, you take that into account, but it's about moving the team productively into the end zone."

Whoever wins the job should have plenty of help. USC returns four starters on the offensive line and Pittman, Tyler Vaughns and tight end Tyler Petite as options in the passing game. Running back Stepen Carr flashed rare big-play ability as a freshman backup.

"We want to make it easier for them so whoever gets the job, they're going to be protected," center Toa Lobendahn said.

The defense brings back six starters, not counting Gustin after injuries limited the disruptive edge rusher to four games. Add in another talented crop of recruits on both sides of the ball, and Helton expects to field his deepest team to date.

Still, it looks like USC will enter Helton's third full season as something of an underdog. Washington was the overwhelming pick to win the Pac-12 in the annual preseason media poll. Arizona and Utah are regarded as viable challengers to represent the South division in the conference title game.

There might be modest expectations from those outside the program, but not from Helton after an 11-3 season. Even without a proven quarterback, he has his sights set on the College Football Playoff.

"We all had a bad taste in our mouth after last season," Helton said. "We want to win a national championship and we're not satisfied until that happens. We want to play on the national stage."

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