Come autumn at USC, all eyes will be on redshirt senior quarterback Cody Kessler and his pursuit of the Heisman Trophy. The spring, however, belonged to Kessler’s backup, redshirt sophomore Max Browne.
“Today was Max’s game,” head coach Steve Sarkisian said following the Trojans’ annual spring game on April 11.
The appetizer to USC’s 2015 season ostensibly became a preview of the ‘16 campaign, with Browne taking the majority of snaps. He threw 37 passes to Kessler’s 10, completing 24 of them for 251 yards and two touchdowns.
“Max Browne did what he’s been doing all spring long,” Sarkisian said. “He just comes in and he’s been making plays.”
The nation’s most coveted quarterback prospect in 2013, Browne has had plenty of time to get acclimated to being a college player. He was an early enrollee prior to his freshman season, making this past spring his third in the program.
“As far as the third spring goes, [2015 was] definitely the most successful one,” Browne said.
Indeed, the Max Browne of April 2015 is well ahead of the Max Browne of a year ago. Even in the last few months, since the completion of USC’s 2014 campaign, Browne has improved his accuracy, harnessing his arm strength to put a softer touch on his passes, while reading the field more confidently in the pocket.
He even showed off the ever-so-slightest ability to run zone-read in the spring game, tucking a play-action fake before rolling out and finding JuJu Smith on the move for a touchdown.
Browne’s impressive spring game is just one step toward the bigger picture goals he said in December he was setting for his offseason.
“Just get more comfortable with the system, and as I get more comfortable, all the throws become second nature,” Browne said in the lead-up to USC’s Holiday Bowl win over Nebraska.
Preparation for the postseason afforded Browne and his Trojans teammates 15 additional practices, which effectively served as a jumpstart to the reserve quarterback’s 2015 workouts.
“Getting all the second-team reps is huge. I try not to waste any,” he said. “These past few weeks have been huge getting reps, and the coaches have really focused on getting the young guys up to speed.”
Fast forward four months, and he appears to be on track.
“Being in the system a second year is huge and will pay dividends come fall,” he said.
If all goes according to plan this season, Browne will get live-game snaps in mop-up duty against some of the lesser competition on USC’s schedule. Then, in September 2016, he’ll make his first career start at AT&T Stadium against Alabama.
That’s a long wait between starts: Browne’s last was Dec. 1, 2012, for Skyline High School in Sammamish, Wash.
Not all 5-star quarterbacks would go almost four years from the end of their prep playing days until their first collegiate start, but Browne’s patience should pay off.
USC has a deep and young wide receiving corps looking to break out starting this season.
Smith is the top returner and most likely candidate to replace All-Pac-12 performer Nelson Agholor as the Trojans’ top option. Smith and promising slot receiver Ajene Harris are true sophomores. Speedster Steven Mitchell, a star of USC’s spring workouts and potential deep-ball threat, is a redshirt sophomore.
Add newcomers Isaac Whitney and 5-star prospect Iman Marshall – a possible two-way player in the same vein as Adoree’ Jackson – and Browne could transition into the starting role with one of the nation’s most experienced and deepest group of receivers.
“Those guys are out there with me every day and so, I’m definitely getting chemistry with them,” Browne said.
While the 2015 season is all about Kessler leading the Trojans in their pursuit of a Pac-12 championship, Max Browne will continue to develop in the background, readying for a smooth transition into 2016.