LOS ANGELES — Freshman Sam Darnold will be Southern California’s starting quarterback on Friday night at Utah, replacing Max Browne after just three games.
Coach Clay Helton made the announcement Monday after practice for USC (1-2).
Browne is 55 of 87 for 474 yards with two touchdown passes and two interceptions in his first three games as the starter for the Trojans, who are coming off a 27-10 loss at Stanford.
The redshirt junior waited three years behind Cody Kessler before beating out Darnold for the starting job in training camp this summer, a decision Helton said he does not regret.
But Helton wants to “see a spark” after scoring only one touchdown in losses to Alabama and Stanford. The Trojans are in their worst scoring drought against Power 5 opposition since being held to two offensive touchdowns in losses to California and Arizona State in 1999.
“I hope Sam can bring that,” Helton said. “I’m confident in it after watching three games of watching him perform, seeing him in the arena and seeing what he can do.”
Helton said he first considered making a change on the flight back home from the Bay Area and spent Sunday reviewing game film. Helton told Browne and Darnold of the move Sunday night and informed the team Monday morning.
“He is not the reason we are 1-2. He is not the scapegoat here,” Helton said of Browne. “The way he has competed and performed was more than honorable.”
Darnold has played occasionally this season, going 14 for 22 for 136 yards and two touchdowns with one interception. His athleticism provides a counterpoint to Browne, and that mobility will be needed against the Utes’ pass rush, given the struggles of a USC offensive line that was touted as one of the nation’s best coming into this season.
Darnold also fits the spread elements of the USC offense, whereas Browne’s best work against the Cardinal came working under center in a more pro-style system.
Darnold said he was stoked for the chance to start, but the Orange County native’s enthusiasm was tempered by the circumstances and his friendship with Browne.
Darnold credited Browne for shaping his own preparations. He hopes it carries over against Utah, when he will become the first freshman to start at quarterback for USC since Max Wittek replaced an injured Matt Barkley for two games at the end of 2012.
“It sucks, but it’s a business and it’s a coach’s decision,” Darnold said. “It’s nothing between us two. We’re still really good friends. I’m just going to do my best with the opportunity given and hopefully we get a W.”
Browne said he would be ready to play if needed, but seemed resigned to the reality of the situation. The USC graduate admitted thinking about his options, since he would be eligible to play his senior season at another FBS school as a graduate transfer next year.
“I know how these things work. Once the young guy goes, you know how it is, but I’ll be ready,” Browne said. “I owe it to my teammates and the guys I have been with for for years now. I owe it to them to stay ready, and I’ll be ready at a moment’s notice.”