The most popular person on any football roster is the second string quarterback, or so says the cliche. But when the first and second string quarterbacks are both struggling, that popularity falls to No. 3 on the depth chart.
Two games into the 2013 USC football season, neither Max Wittek nor Cody Kessler have taken command of the Trojan offense. The Trojans' inability to establish consistent quarterback play against Washington State prompted head coach Lane Kiffin to use running back Tre Madden behind center, taking direct snaps.
Meanwhile, 5-star 2013 signee Max Browne practices on the scout team and is on an early track to redshirting the season. Browne was one of the crown jewels in Kiffin's stellar recruiting class, ranked as Rivals.com's No. 1 pro-style quarterback prospect.
Kiffin on Max Browne: "Max has a great future. Ideally we'd like to redshirt him. Look forward to him competing for the job this spring."— Mark Willard (@Mark_T_Willard) September 9, 2013
Kiffin recently said, per ESPN 710 in Los Angeles, that redshirting Browne was ideal. He did leave the door cracked earlier when separating the true freshman from his teammates, though, telling The Los Angeles Daily News Browne was not necessarily redshirting or a concrete No. 3.
That opening is one some of the more boisterous in the Trojan fan base may try to barrel through, as call for Browne to see game action could gain volume if the offensive situation remains dire.
That's a distinct possibility in the Trojans' upcoming games. After hosting Boston College in Week 3, USC faces Utah State and Arizona State defenses that stocked with returners from last year's top 40 scoring defenses.
Browne told Scott Wolf of The Daily News his relegation behind Kessler and Wittek on the depth chart early into fall camp was "a little disappointing," but also "motivating."
Using his loss as motivation may have helped Browne make strides in the month since, but he had a long way to go. Such is to be expected of a true freshman competing with two players entering their third year in the program.
Nevertheless, expectations on recruits are higher than ever, due to the attention paid blue chippers while they are still in high school and the success of a rare few able to make that immediate transition.
Browne came into a program where a true freshman won the job when it last had a quarterback competition. And in that 2009 season, Matt Barkley performed adequately.
Barkley is one of those freshmen outliers though, and asking Browne—or any quarterback—to follow him in being the exception to the rule is unrealistic.
Kiffin faces a situation reminiscent of that which unfolded across town at rival UCLA two years ago.
With then-head coach Rick Neuheisel was occupying a hot seat and the Bruin offense sputtering behind quarterbacks Kevin Prince and Richard Brehaut, the possibility of burning Brett Hundley's redshirt was regularly addressed.
A year of learning the speed of the college game in practice and strength training in the weight room paid immediate dividends for Hundley, evident in his very first game.
Hundley broke a long, scoring rush in his debut, and it's largely been smooth sailing for the Bruin signal caller since. It's doubtful he'd have had the same introduction taking over a struggling offense midway through a season on the brink.
Playing Browne is hardly a cure-all for USC's offensive woes. On the contrary, the Trojans' three-man quarterback competition in the spring became a two-man race in August because Browne was simply behind Kessler and Wittek.
Kiffin told The Daily News his more veteran quarterbacks had a leg up "being able to [handle] the speed of the game." That speed only becomes more of a factor the deeper USC goes into its schedule.
Relying on the true freshman at this juncture might be less of a Hail Mary, and more of a punt. The only reason to play Browne now is to give him game repetitions alongside other young talents like Madden, Nelson Agholor and Justin Davis, who will be cornerstones of the Trojan offense in the coming seasons.