LOS ANGELES — Matt Fink lined up in a shotgun formation behind center Brett Neilon, then handed off to receiver Velus Jones on an end-around.
It was a quick play that commenced a walk-through period of USC’s first spring football practice Tuesday afternoon.
The sequence also unofficially kicked off an offseason quarterback competition.
Sam Darnold is no longer behind center for the Trojans after forgoing his final two seasons of eligibility to enter the NFL draft, a departure that leaves the most visible void on the roster. Darnold, considered one of the most talented quarterbacks in program history, set a school record for passing yards last season and is expected to be a high first-round pick in April.
Fink, a redshirt sophomore, and Jack Sears, a redshirt freshman, were left to get the first crack at replacing Darnold. The passers are set to split repetitions over 15 spring workouts, with Fink starting with the first-team offense Tuesday.
Coach Clay Helton said the Trojans will not, though, name a starting quarterback during spring practice.
“At all positions,” Helton said, “it’s an education period in our year, it’s not an evaluation.”
Leaving the competition unsettled until training camp will also allow JT Daniels to enter the mix. Daniels, a touted Mater Dei High passer who was named the Gatorade national player of the year, will enroll for the fall semester after graduating high school a year early.
So a decision on a starter isn’t likely to be reached until much closer to the Sept. 1 season opener against UNLV.
“I’ve always said the man who’s playing the best by the time we get to game one is going to go out there,” Helton said. “The best man’s gotta play in that moment.”
Fink is the only one of the three quarterbacks who has appeared in a college game. He saw action three times last season in mop-up duty as the backup to Darnold.
Asked if he felt the starting job was his position to hold on to, Fink said: “I’m just gonna keep doing what I’m doing and competing as hard as I can.”
Helton said no one had an edge in the competition.
Sears has taken over for Darnold in the past. He was Darnold’s successor at San Clemente High, where he led the Tritons to a CIF State Division 1-A football championship as a senior in 2016 and left as a four-star recruit. He redshirted last season.
“Learning from Sam, I learned how to be a pro,” Sears said. “How to handle your business on and off the field.”
While Daniels is viewed as a more traditional pocket passer, Fink and Sears are considered more mobile quarterbacks. Late in a victory last season against Oregon State, Fink ran for a 51-yard touchdown.
“What the offense is going to revolve around if they’re playing quarterback is that they can run the ball,” tight end Tyler Petite said, “and that’s something that’s their strong suit. Not that they can’t throw the ball.”
The last time Darnold was not USC’s full-time starting quarterback was when most of the current players were underclassmen or still in high school, making for a different atmosphere at Howard Jones-Brian Kennedy Field.
“It’s a little weird for sure,” Petite said.
During a players-only throwing session earlier this winter, Jake Russell approached Petite with a question.
“Is it kind of different out here?” asked Russell, a walk-on receiver who was among Darnold’s roommates last year.
“At first I said no,” Petite said, “but then I looked at all the guys who were out there.”
There were more new faces, and younger ones, Petite realized.
While Darnold departed early for the NFL, so did running back Ronald Jones, who left as the school’s fifth all-time leading rusher, and leading receiver Deontay Burnett.
Quarterback is the first of several positions on offense to sort out.
“One of the things I see with this football team is a great amount of depth,” Helton said. “It may not have a true superstar right now, but it has some pretty talented individuals.”
Cornerback Jack Jones will miss spring practice to focus on academics, Helton said, and is suspended for the season opener because of an unspecified team rules violation. … Tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe will be held out of spring practice to heal the hip flexor strain that limited him throughout last season. Defensive tackle Marlon Tuipulotu, who is recovering from back surgery, is also out for spring practice. … Offensive tackle/center Toa Lobendahn will miss the first week of spring practice because of knee soreness. … Safety Jamel Cook will miss spring camp and plans to transfer, Helton said. … Helton confirmed reserve offensive linemen Cole Smith and Nathan Smith have medically retired. … Former USC receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, currently with the Pittsburgh Steelers, was at practice Tuesday and caught passes from the quarterbacks while they warmed up. … The Trojans return to practice Thursday.
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