It took less than two quarters of football for USC’s worst fears to be realized.
One day after JT Daniels lay crumpled in a heap on the Coliseum turf, clutching his right knee, the nightmarish consequence of the sophomore quarterback’s injury is now painfully clear. An MRI exam revealed on Sunday that Daniels tore multiple ligaments in his knee, ending his sophomore season just after it began.
“He will be missed,” USC coach Clay Helton said, “but we will have to move forward. We wish him nothing but the best with his surgery. We know he’ll be back. He’s going to get well.”
The injury could prove devastating for USC, considering the stakes at hand. At the start of a make-or-break season, the Trojans now have no choice but to put their trust under center in 18-year-old freshman Kedon Slovis, who, just months ago, was a three-star recruit with every expectation of redshirting in 2019.
Now, Slovis will be thrown into the fire as a true freshman, just as Daniels was a year ago.
For Daniels, the season-ending prognosis feels especially cruel. The sophomore came into Saturday’s debut determined to put his frustrating freshman year behind him and start anew. Instead, Daniels, a former five-star recruit and Santa Ana (Calif.) Mater Dei standout will redshirt in 2019, with the hope of returning healthy again next season, with three years of eligibility still remaining.
“He has always been an incredibly mentally tough kid,” Helton said. “That’s what this injury is. It’s more mental than physical. With modern medicine nowadays, these surgeries, even though they’re lengthy in the rehab, they’re routine as far as coming back and coming back better than you actually were.”
With Daniels briefly at the helm, USC’s new Air Raid offense hummed along as hoped. How that might change in the wake of his injury remains to be seen, but on Saturday night, as Slovis took the reins, the Trojans leaned heavily on the run game, with Vavae Malepeai carrying the load for a career-high 134 yards on 23 carries.
As a passer, Slovis was slow out of the gate. Then, during the middle of his second drive, the true freshman uncorked a deep pass, 41 yards down the field to wideout Tyler Vaughns. Two plays later, the Trojans scored their only points of the second half, which proved just enough to hold on, 31-23, over Fresno State.
On his next drive, Slovis tried a similar deep pass, only to see it intercepted.
That inconsistency may be the expectation moving forward, as Slovis slowly acclimates to the college game. A late-blooming recruit, Slovis boasted only a handful of other big-time offers outside of the one he received from USC.
But in camp, Slovis proved he was capable of orchestrating USC’s new, up-tempo offense, impressing coaches with his arm talent, as well as his composure.
“I think, talentwise, he’s as good as I’ve ever seen,” offensive coordinator Graham Harrell said last month.
Entering the huddle Saturday night, teammates took note of his poise immediately. To Slovis, the experience felt “just like practice every day, but in a live environment, and everybody is watching this time.”
“He felt loose,” center Brett Neilon said. “You could tell there was some nervousness, but he’s a pretty composed kid. Getting the backup job as a freshman, and your number is called. You don’t really think about that happening.”
But for USC, that is the harsh reality now at hand. With Daniels out — and only one scholarship quarterback, redshirt junior Matt Fink, behind him on the depth chart — the Trojans must rely on the inexperienced hand of an 18-year-old to guide their new offense.
In light of Daniels’ injury, the Trojans could potentially turn to departed backup Jack Sears for additional depth. After unsuccessfully competing for the quarterback job in consecutive seasons, Sears opted to enter the transfer portal a week ago, but allegedly told Helton he would return briefly, if an opportunity arose.
Now, it may be a necessity as USC stares down the unfortunate prospect of a season without its top signal caller.
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