JT Daniels and Matt Fink could both miss this week's game, leaving third-string Jack Sears to run the show against Arizona State
Peruse the offensive statistic rankings of the USC Trojans, and they speak to the most consistent struggle of the 2018 season. USC is scoring 26 points per game, tied with Kansas for No. 87 in the nation; producing 239.3 passing yards per game, tied with SMU for No. 60; and at 116.9 rushing yards per game, is tucked between Southern Miss and Akron at No. 115.
Coming off a 41-28 loss at Utah, however, the most noteworthy number for the USC offense is third — as in the third name at quarterback on the Trojans' depth chart, Jack Sears.
USC head coach Clay Helton said on Sunday during his weekly teleconference that starting quarterback JT Daniels is undergoing concussion protocol. As of Wednesday's practice, Daniels remained in concussion protocol with his status unclear. Reign of Troy reports if Daniels has not been cleared by Friday, QB1 will be a scratch.
QB2 Matt Fink filled in for Daniels during the second half of USC's loss at Utah, and led a pair of fourth-quarter touchdown drives; one more offensive touchdown drive than the Trojans had in the prior three quarters.
Fink looked sharp, completing 6-of-7 pass attempts with a touchdown to tight end Tyler Petite. His mobility added another layer to a run game in need of a jolt, and Fink finished with 21 yards on the ground. The performance is all the more impressive considering he played at least a portion of the fourth quarter with the same broken ribs that Helton said will have him sidelined this week for Arizona State.
This looks like the play where Matt Fink broke three of his ribs: pic.twitter.com/47fyYPr41w— Joey Kaufman (@joeyrkaufman) October 22, 2018
Sears thus began this week of practice jumping from QB3 to QB1. Should he maintain that spot into game-day, he'll make his collegiate debut tasked with bringing some life to an offense plagued by inconsistency.
Since he lacks college game experience, one must go back to his time at San Clemente High School for stats on Sears. There, he followed some guy named Sam Darnold.
Sears was a standout at the CIF Southern Section powerhouse, throwing 37 touchdown passes and rushing for another nine in a senior season in which he tallied more than 3,700 total yards.
Of course, those numbers came in the South Coast League; not the Pac-12. And it's also been almost two full years, with Sears redshirting at USC in 2017.
That time spent in the program does mean Sears will be no novice when it comes to the playbook. He also has nearly two full seasons practicing alongside the same players with whom he'll take the field Saturday if Daniels cannot return.
The issue for USC isn't so much Sears as it is what happens if further bad luck befalls the position.
USC has enjoyed good fortune with its quarterbacks for more than a half-decade. Cody Kessler started every game for the better part of three seasons from 2013-15, Sam Darnold made 23 consecutive starts after assuming the reins a quarter of the way into '16, and Darnold predecessor Max Browne didn't lose the job due to injury.
One must go back to 2012 and Matt Barkley missing the final two games of his career to the last time a Trojans quarterback sat out starts due to injury. Somehow going to the opposite extreme of injury luck and losing yet another in such a short window creates a conundrum far behind just play-calling or execution.
"We have three quarterbacks — I hope we don't lose three in one game," Helton said. In addition to Sears, USC has walk-ons Holden Thomas and Brandon Perdue — though Thomas is only now returning to practices for the first time in two months.
USC is not a program that has been hit hard with quarterback transfers in an era of players at the position more frequently moving on if they fall behind in the depth chart. Ricky Town left for Arkansas before the 2015 season, and Browne finished his career at Pitt.
The Trojans have, however, had brushes with quarterbacks at other programs that spring to mind amid the current uncertainty.
Current Heisman Trophy front-runner Tua Tagovailoa mentioned USC in the spring when talking about the possibility of him transferring from Alabama. Another quarterback who came into 2018 with Heisman buzz, Arizona's Khalil Tate, was recruited to USC — just not at the position. That's still a sore subject for Tate.
In a parallel universe, Khalil Tate went to USC as an athlete (Steve Sarkisian didn't want him as a QB) and is converting from corner to QB this week to start against ASU.— Kyle Bonagura (@BonaguraESPN) October 22, 2018
There's also Jalen Greene, who came to USC from the same high school as Tate, Serra, initially at quarterback but who transitioned to receiver. Greene left the program this past offseason as a graduate transfer. However, he remained at wide receiver this season with Utah State, and has 22 catches for 312 yards and three touchdowns for the 6-1 Aggies.
Greene and Tate were examples of a mini-trend in Steve Sarkisian's brief tenure at USC predating Helton, recruiting standout prep quarterbacks with eyes on moving to another position. The most prominent example currently is Ajene Harris.
Harris has developed nicely at cornerback since moving to that position from wide receiver. Helton specifically cited Harris' performance at Utah as one of the game's bright spots, made all the more special with Harris playing to honor the passing of his father.
Harris led Crenshaw High School at quarterback to the Los Angeles City Division championship in 2013, and earned All-City Player of the Year from the Los Angeles Times.
So in a season when USC is down two quarterbacks, already ranked in league statistically with teams like Kansas and SMU, is it that crazy to envision a scenario in which one of USC's best cornerbacks ends up its option at quarterback?
"We'll be looking at all available options. Obviously, Ajene has done it in the past," Helton said. "I don't want to go specifically into specific game-plan stuff, but we have some other ways to be able to get through the game [vs. Arizona State]."
(Top photo by Jack McGillen, courtesy of USCTrojans.com)