USC quarterback duels: Jaxson Dart-Kedon Slovis isn't the first; here are five others

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USC quarterbacks Jaxson Dart, left, and Kedon Slovis are battling for the opportunity to start for the Trojans on Saturday against Oregon State.
USC quarterbacks Jaxson Dart, left, and Kedon Slovis are battling for the opportunity to start Saturday against Oregon State. (Young Kwak; Rick Bowmer / Associated Press)

Jaxson Dart has played in one college football game, and the freshman emerged from it as the Pac-12’s offensive player of the week.

Kedon Slovis has played in 21 games, passing for nearly 6,000 yards and 50 touchdowns, and the junior is widely considered a future first-round NFL draft pick.

USC interim head coach Donte Williams has billed what's to come as a "quarterback battle," but, because of injuries for each player, it's unclear how much of it will be staged at this week's practices leading into Saturday night's game against Oregon State at the Coliseum.

The X-rays on Slovis' neck injury sustained at Washington State — which led to Dart coming into the game — were negative, according to Williams. He expects Slovis to be available for practice. On Monday night during his appearance on "Trojans Live," Williams revealed Dart has a knee issue and is "day to day." For now, the Trojans plan to hold him out as a precaution.

If Slovis practices and Dart doesn't, one would think he'll take the first snap against the Beavers. But it appears the fight for the starting job has only begun.

Dart, the reigning Gatorade national player of the year, had his teammates raving about his play-making ability, with one comparing him to No. 3 overall NFL draft pick Sam Darnold, the last great Trojan quarterback.

Even at USC, where heated quarterback competitions have become the expectation the last two decades, this one feels like it could be quite spicy.

As a prelude to Slovis versus Dart, here’s a look at five quarterback decisions that shaped the modern era of USC football:

1985: Rodney Peete takes over for senior Sean Salisbury

USC quarterback Rodney Peete runs with the ball against Michigan in the 1989 Rose Bowl.
USC quarterback Rodney Peete runs with the ball against Michigan in the 1989 Rose Bowl. (Mike Powell / Getty Images)

In the fall of 1985, Sean Salisbury was USC’s all-time leading passer, a fifth-year senior who would go on to the Canadian Football League and the NFL. The last thing anybody would have expected was Salisbury losing his job to a redshirt freshman, but that’s exactly what happened after the Trojans started 4-4 and USC head coach Ted Tollner promoted the 19-year-old Peete.

“It could have been construed as a desperate move,” wrote The Times’ Mal Florence.

But Peete nearly beat Washington in his first start and took down UCLA and Oregon, helping the Trojans to the Aloha Bowl at 6-5, beginning a three-year run as the starter.

Before Peete’s emergence, the notion of a “quarterback controversy” at USC was unheard of because the only question was which guy was going to hand the ball off to the next star at “Tailback U.” The Peete years serve as a marker for how the importance of the USC quarterback changed over time, and it was no coincidence it happened right as Bill Walsh’s “West Coast Offense” was shaping the game’s future.

From there, in the 1990s, USC featured high-profile quarterbacks Todd Marinovich and Rob Johnson and threw the ball enough to woo Carson Palmer to campus.

2003: Matt Leinart beats Matt Cassel to replace Carson Palmer

USC quarterback Matt Leinart passes during a scrimmage in the spring of 2003 at the Coliseum.
USC quarterback Matt Leinart passes during a scrimmage in the spring of 2003 at the Coliseum. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Matt Cassel came to USC in 2000 out of Chatsworth High, where he was rated the No. 8 quarterback in his class back in the early days of recruiting rankings. He bided his time backing up Palmer for three years, and all he would have to do was beat out sophomore Matt Leinart to take over what would be an electric USC offense.

Leinart, the touted Santa Ana Mater Dei left-hander, edged Cassel in preseason camp and promptly beat Auburn on the road, leaving little doubt Pete Carroll and offensive coordinator Norm Chow had made the right call.

It was a different era, though, and Cassel would stay at USC for his final two seasons of eligibility, backing up Leinart, who like Palmer would win the Heisman Trophy in 2004. Ironically, Cassel would end up having the better NFL career, starting 81 games and making more than $65 million.

2007: John David Booty holds off Mark Sanchez

USC's John David Booty throws against Illinois in the 2008 Rose Bowl.
USC's John David Booty throws against Illinois in the 2008 Rose Bowl. (K.C. Alfred / San Diego Union-Tribune)

In 2006, Booty edged Sanchez, then a redshirt freshman, in fall camp. In 2007, USC began the season ranked No. 1, but Booty injured himself and threw four interceptions in Stanford’s 24-23 upset of USC that launched Jim Harbaugh’s coaching career into the big time.

The next two weeks, with Booty still on the mend, Sanchez started and beat Arizona and Notre Dame. Many Trojans fans were clamoring for the sophomore to keep the job the rest of the season, but after USC lost at Oregon 24-17 with Sanchez, Carroll went back to Booty for the rest of the year.

That season still doesn’t sit well with the USC faithful.

2013: Cody Kessler takes the reins from Matt Barkley

USC quarterback Cody Kessler passes against Colorado in October 2014.
USC quarterback Cody Kessler passes against Colorado in October 2014. (Stephen Dunn / Getty Images)

Four months into the Lane Kiffin era at USC in 2010, Kiffin secured the commitment of Max Wittek, the No. 2 pro-style quarterback in the 2011 recruiting class. Only two months later, Cody Kessler, the No. 4 pro-style quarterback in the class, showed that he was undeterred by Wittek’s presence and committed to the Trojans, too.

In the summer of 2013, it was time for them to duel with Matt Barkley finally out of the picture, but the two were so close in Kiffin’s eyes that the competition bled into the fall. The Trojans lost to Washington State 10-7 in their second game, with Kessler and Wittek both struggling in the defeat.

The next week, Kiffin chose Kessler, and he would lead USC for the next three seasons.

2016: Sam Darnold replaces Max Browne early

USC quarterback Sam Darnold warms up before a game against Arizona State in October 2016.
USC quarterback Sam Darnold warms up before a game against Arizona State in October 2016. (Ryan Kang / Associated Press)

Max Browne, the No. 1 quarterback recruit in the country in 2013, waited his turn during all three years of the Kessler era. Given the hype around him, most figured he would have unseated Kessler by then, and maybe it should have been a sign of things to come that he never did.

Entering 2016, it almost felt like it would be Browne’s job by default. And, even though redshirt freshman Sam Darnold had an impressive preseason camp, then-USC coach Clay Helton (that feels surreal, doesn’t it?) went with Browne heading into the opener against Alabama in Arlington, Texas.

But the Crimson Tide brutalized USC 52-6, and, two weeks later, the Trojans fell 27-10 at Stanford. Helton saw enough and made the switch to Darnold, who would go 20-4 as a starter and lead USC to a Rose Bowl victory in 2016 and a Pac-12 championship in 2017.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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