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Column: Kedon Slovis validates the hype, jolts USC in 45-20 win

Freshman Kedon Slovis opened a lot of eyes in his first start for USC.
Freshman Kedon Slovis opened a lot of eyes in his first start for USC. (Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Images)

Everyone should be pleasantly surprised by freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis' first collegiate start. Let's be honest, no one could have expected 28-of-33 passing for 377 yards, 3 touchdowns and no interceptions in a 45-20 win over Stanford. Not from a newcomer thrust into the spotlight as an injury replacement just two games into his Trojans career.

Then again, that's kind of been Slovis' deal since he arrived on campus -- outpacing expectations so significantly that it was hard to know what to truly believe.

But that said, those who think this came totally out of nowhere simply haven't been paying attention -- or willing to listen.

To rewind things way back, I was in San Antonio, Texas, back in January for the All-American Bowl. Slovis, a 3-star prospect from Scottsdale, Ariz., who wasn't moving the needle much, was not among the players invited. But he came up in conversation nonetheless with a prominent Arizona high school football coach whose team had competed against Slovis' Desert Mountain HS.

The coach was adament that Slovis was far better than his recruiting ranking, that he had elevated a high school team low on Division I talent and made it respectable in a competitive region. Slovis, this opposing coach said, was a great pickup for the Trojans, even if no one in the fan base seemed to take much notice.

Flash forward to the spring. The conversations started on the sideline among reporters watching practice,, a undertone of disbelief qualifying everything -- 'Wait, is Kedon Slovis the second-best QB on this team?' Offensive coordinator Graham Harrell fed into the burgeoning hype with his own strong assessment, but still, one had to keep this in perspective -- this was to be sophomore JT Daniels' prove-it season, and another segment of the fan base would remain convinced until the end of time that redshirt sophomore Jack Sears was the one who should be given a longer look by the coaching staff based on his solid spot start against Arizona State last season.

Then the Slovis story went next-level in the preseason. Harrell, who was rather muted in any praise of the other QBs, said after the Trojans named Slovis the No. 2 QB behind Daniels that the freshman was "talent-wise, as good as I've seen."

Harrell doubled down this week once Daniels was lost to a season-ending knee injury and Slovis was suddenly, incredibly, improbably USC's true freshman starting quarterback.

"As far as a passer goes, he's got as good of an arm as I've seen and he can make any throw out there. He can make throws that most people can't make," Harrell said.

And yet, the Sears talk still persisted by those that couldn't -- or simply wouldn't -- believe what they were hearing, what the coaches were seeing, what the media was reiterating. Even with Sears gone to the NCAA transfer portal, his presence -- or absence, rather -- unfairly hovered over discussions about Slovis and the future of this offense.

No more.

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To be honest, nor does Daniels. That's not to say the injured sophomore QB won't be part of the discussion when he returns from his ACL/meniscus tears -- that's a conversation for a later date -- but right now, after that performance Saturday night, Slovis is the story. He's earned the spotlight -- not just assumed it by default. He's validated everything that has been said about him these last eight-plus months, going back to that conversation in San Antonio.

The exclamation point for Slovis came with a little more than 6 minutes left in the fourth quarter. The student section had just started a "Ke-don Slo-vis" chant when the freshman QB fired a strike to Tyler Vaughns on a slant for a 16-yard touchdown and a 45-20 lead.

Will everyone be convinced? No, college football fanhood doesn't work like that. People dig in on what they believe and look for ways to reinforce it. But for those that entered this week thinking Slovis had somehow been overvalued on the depth chart by the coaches, he didn't provide any supporting evidence for the contrarians.

He delivered one example after another that he's no 3-star QB and that USC's prospects for this season are not diminished with him at the helm of the offense. As a refresher, here some some of those examples:

-The USC coaches made a statement about their confidence in Slovis right out of the gate, going 4-wide on the opening series -- we didn't see a lot of that last week -- and 5-wide at one point on the second series. Slovis responded by driving the Trojans 72 yards in 12 plays before the opening possession stalled at the 5 to set up a field goal. That included a 45-yard catch-and-run to Drake London, whom Slovis spotted open down the right seam with a step on the Stanford secondary and got the ball on time for the receiver to take off running with it.

-With USC down 17-3 early in the second quarter and panic setting in for the fan base, Slovis dropped a 39-yard dime into the arms of Amon-Ra St. Brown in the end zone, showing off both the arm strength and touch that wowed his offensive coordinator in the spring and preseason.

-With the Trojans down 20-10 and hope still fleeting for the Trojan faithful, Slovis threaded a 29-yard laser to Tyler Vaughns. To be fair, this was a risky throw and something Harrell critiqued Slovis on in the spring -- that he has so much confidence in his arm strength that he'll take risks in tight windows. It will bite him at some point, but in this moment it gave the Trojans another much-needed jolt while setting up a first down at the Stanford 29. Stephen Carr scored on a 25-yard TD run two plays later to cut the deficit to 20-17.

-Slovis then put the Trojans on top, 24-20, in the final minute of the second quarter with a 7-yard touchdown pass to St. Brown to cap a 7-play, 70-yard drive that took 1:50. Slovis was 4-for-4 for 60 yards on the drive, including a 31 hookup with Vaughns down the right sideline.

-Late in the third quarter, with USC looking to create its first separation in the game, Slovis stared down a blitz and threw right to the spot vacated by the Stanford linebacker to hit Michael Pittman for a 21-yard gain on third-and-6. It was a veteran read from a guy who rarely resembled a true freshman all night. Slovis followed later in the series with an absolutely perfect 31-yard rope to Pittman down the left sideline threaded right over a Cardinal defensive back. Vavae Malepeai rushed in for a 4-yard TD on the next play to make it a 31-20 lead.

-And midway through the fourth quarter, after Jay Tufele had stuffed Stanford running back Cameron Scarlett on fourth-and-1 and gave USC possession at the Cardinal 34, Slovis capitalized with an eventual 16-yard touchdown to Vaughns on a well-executed slant to reciprocate the student section's cheers.

Now that he's done that -- to a respectable Stanford team -- the window has closed for Slovis to surprise anyone. He's still a freshman, had a couple miscommunications with receivers between all those highlights Saturday night and he'll make some mistakes this season.

But at least now everyone knows -- or should know -- why Harrell couldn't contain his praise for the freshman and why the coaches couldn't hold him back on the depth chart in favor of veterans Sears and Matt Fink.

The only questions now are what does he do for an encore and what does this mean for USC's season? Pittman had a thought on that.

"He played great tonight," he said. "You can just expect to keep airing it out and I hope that people stop doubting us now and look at us like we [can] actually be a contender."