As the sun set over USC’s practice field Tuesday, Jaxson Dart stepped into his place at the helm of a slumping offense, taking the reins as if they’d been saved for him. The freshman was just named USC’s starting quarterback, and for the time being, his ascent was technically temporary. But as Dart took over ahead of what will be his first collegiate start Saturday, it was impossible to shake the feeling that a new dawn was beckoning even while the sun still was setting on USC’s season.
With junior Kedon Slovis still sidelined by a lower leg injury, USC interim coach Donte Williams said he had no other choice but to elevate Dart this week against UCLA. Whether that will remain the case afterward remains to be seen, but Williams offered no timeline for Slovis’ return on Tuesday. Again, he was cryptic about his usual starter’s status, suggesting both that Slovis “possibly” could miss the rest of the season and also that he might return to practice this week.
But after playing coy for months about his quarterbacks in the name of gamesmanship, Williams broke with his usual protocol to publicly declare Dart the starter Monday night.
He downplayed the gravity of that decision a day later, but as Dart took over Tuesday, the significance didn’t seem lost on anyone else.
“I feel like the kid has a bright future,” running back Keaontay Ingram said of Dart . “He’s going to win the Heisman one day, watch. I’m telling you. That dude is the real deal.”
It’ll be up to Dart to prove himself Saturday with the stakes much higher than in either of his previous three appearances. With only three games remaining in the season, USC desperately needs a win over UCLA to retain any hope of a bowl bid.
For Dart, it’s a chance to once again grab hold of an opportunity. Since he threw for nearly 400 yards and four touchdowns in an electric September debut, the freshman hasn’t quite recaptured that magic. Dart was inconsistent in his last two appearances, completing just 57% of his passes and throwing for 198 combined yards.
A convoluted quarterback rotation had rendered both of USC’s quarterbacks ineffective over that stretch. But on his first day as starter, there was no shortage of swagger from the freshman. He bounced around USC’s offense throughout practice, injecting energy and handing out high-fives after every big play.
“He’s been special since the day he got here, and you can see that on even his high school tape, just the way guys rally around him, the way he makes the guys around him better,” offensive coordinator Graham Harrell said. “He’s obviously a talented quarterback, but he’s also a really, really, he’s a good leader. He’s a guy that has great energy and when he steps foot on the field, I think the guys — they elevate their play because he’s out there.
It didn’t hurt, Dart acknowledged, that everyone now knew him as the starter.
“When you’re named the guy, you hold yourself to a standard, and you want to hold everyone else to a standard, which is a high one,” Dart said. “And I think the guys on the team hold me to a high [standard], and I want to do the same for them. So, we hold everybody accountable.”
The standard for USC quarterbacks in the crosstown rivalry has been set high over the last two seasons after Slovis shredded the Bruins in both of his starts against them. In two victories, the junior threw for 859 yards, nine touchdowns and two interceptions while completing 71%of his passes.
On Tuesday, Slovis was relegated again to the sideline, his left knee in a compression sleeve and his hands in his pockets. The former All-Pac-12 passer could only watch as Dart took command of USC’s offense.
With a big performance Saturday,Dart may never return the reins again.
“I’ve always kind of felt like I’ve put the most pressure on myself. I don’t really see it as much pressure on the outside,” Dart said. “Like I said, I hold myself to a high standard and I want to perform to the highest of my abilities. So my expectation is to have a big game.”