Slovis no surprise? 'I tried to tell you the kid's going to be really good'
It wasn't so much that USC offensive coordinator Graham Harrell wanted to issue an "I told you so" -- or a series of them -- but that's just what he kept coming back to with every question about freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis on Saturday night.
And to be fair, Harrell had every right to reiterate that there was a reason he and head coach Clay Helton named Slovis the No. 2 QB to open the season, that there was a reason he said the freshman was as talented a QB as he'd seen, a reason he stayed aggressive with the passing game in Slovis' first start, etc.
"From Day 1, I've told you the kid's special, the kid's really good and does a great job in our offense. So you shouldn't be surprised when he comes out and performs like that," Harrell said yet again near the end of his postgame media scrum Saturday night. "I tried to tell you the kid's going to be really good."
But how could anyone not be at least a little surprised? Even the most bullish believers in the merits of Slovis' strong spring and even stronger preseason couldn't have forecasted 28-of-33 passing for 377 yards, 3 touchdowns and 0 interceptions, or that he'd be the catalyst to turn a 14-point deficit into a 45-20 rout of No. 23 Stanford.
Yet it was almost impossible to find any USC coach or player afterward who would agree that, yes, for all the confidence that existed in the 18-year-old, this was even better than anticipated.
"I mean, he makes those throws in practice so I wasn't amazed. I knew he could do it. He proved to everybody tonight that he could do it," defensive back Greg Johnson said.
Said running back Vavae Malepeai: "It was like, we're running the clock out, Stephen [Carr] and I were talking like, 'Man, Kedon came out and really did his thing.' Honestly, it wasn't really no surprise because it's something we see Monday through Friday since fall camp started."
Sure, sure, Slovis did indeed impress in practice -- enough that those who actually watched the Trojans' fall camp weren't shocked when he beat out veterans Matt Fink and Jack Sears for the backup job. (Many others who didn't watch those practices felt differently, insisting that surely Helton and Harrell had misevaluated their talent at the position).
But practice is one thing and a nationally-ranked Pac-12 foe is another. Right?
"We understood his talent and we understood the types of players our quarterbacks are," Helton said, when asked if he expected this. "The one thing, I said, 'Graham, let's cut it loose and let's go have fun, let the kids have fun, let's play fast and play aggressive. Even though he's young, we named him the No. 2 for a reason and let's go let him cut loose.'"
The coaches made a statement early of their confidence in Slovis, 3-star prospect from Scottsdale, Ariz., who has gone from overlooked recruit to spotlight-stealing freshman starter. USC put the ball in Slovis' hands from the start as he passed four times and scrambled two others over the first six plays. The Trojans went four-wide at times during their opening series and five-wide at one point during the second series. They let the freshman throw deep, over the middle, down the sidelines and really anywhere he saw an opportunity.
"From the beginning I told you he's a special kid. We expect we're going to run our offense and he's going to execute it," Harrell said in another variation of his refrain. "There's going to be plenty to improve on, I'm sure, and we'll go watch that and get better, but like I said, that's what we expect from him. Since the beginning I tried to tell you the kid had a chance to be special, and he did a nice job today."
Yeah, he really did. He said all that a bunch actually. He doubled down earlier this week on his evaluation that Slovis was as good as passer as he'd seen, said the young QB could make throws that other guys can't make, etc. He did say all those things.
But to do it right away, in every way? The Trojans expected this?
"He did what I expected him to do. He played a hell of a game," Harrell answered again.
OK, OK, so they expected their freshman backup quarterback to light up Stanford his first time in the spotlight. But how did he do it? Well, the Trojans were in agreement on that matter as well.
Slovis joked that he didn't sleep much Friday night and that "it was a long day today too" waiting for that 7:30 p.m. kickoff, but once he got on the field for warmups he felt "pretty good." Wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown noted that he was rooming next to Slovis in the team hotel and that the QB didn't look fazed at all by what awaited.
"His personality -- he's not afraid of anything. He likes to compete, so it's just the perfect stage for him," left tackle Austin Jackson would say later.
Center Brett Neilon shared an anecdote from one of the pivotal early moments. USC was already trailing 14-3 when Velus Jones fumbled a kickoff return, giving Stanford prime field position and setting up an eventual field goal to make the deficit 17-3.
"When Velus fumbled, stuff happens, and [Slovis] called up the offense, told us all to huddle up and he just said, 'You know what, no matter what happens on the field, when the offense hits it, we're going to score, we're going to do our thing,'" Neilon recalled. "That was pretty impressive for a younger guy to do that. … He plays like he's 21 or 22."
And so USC went out that next series and started its comeback. On the sixth play of that possession, Slovis dropped a 39-yard strike into the arms of St. Brown in the end zone for a momentous touchdown that seemed to settle everything down in the Coliseum.
On the next Trojans possession, now down 20-10 midway through the second quarter, he saw a tight window down the right seam to Tyler Vaughns and didn't hesitate. Slovis' pass seemed to buzz right past a Stanford defender's hands and on its way to Vaughns for a 29-yard gain. Two plays later Carr broke off a 25-yard touchdown run to make it 20-17.
The next series, more of the same. A 31-yard dart down the sideline to Vaughns put the Trojans at the Cardinal 35-yard line. A 16-yard strike down the seam to Vaughns soon moved the offense to the 6. And an easy 7-yard touchdown pass to St. Brown pushed the hosts into the lead, 24-20, late in the second quarter.
Harrell was asked if there was one throw that impressed him the most. No, he said, it was more than that.
"He had a lot of good throws. I think more than throws I was just happy with his decision-making, and that's the most important thing -- make good decisions and throw it to the open guy," Harrell said. "You spend a lot of time with those guys as a quarterback coach, you talk to them and hopefully you spend enough time with them that they see the field the way that you're seeing it. He did a good job of doing that tonight. Almost every throw where I thought the ball should go, it went."
On USC's second drive of the third quarter, after miscommunicating with Michael Pittman early in the series, Slovis stared down a blitz and found the senior wideout for a 21-yard gain on third-and-9. He'd connect with Pittman again for 9 yards and then for 31 on a beautiful on-the-money rope down the left sideline that whistled right over a Stanford defensive back. That took the Trojans to the 4, and Malepeai punched in the touchdown on the next play for a 31-20 lead.
Whatever the coaches' confidence level was in Slovis before, it was unrelenting by the fourth quarter. Facing a fourth-and-1 at the Stanford 30, Harrell dialed up another pass and Slovis connected with Pittman for a 12-yard conversion. Three plays later the Trojans were in the end zone again on a Malepeai TD -- 38-20.
And on his final pass of the day, the freshman QB was right on point once more for a 16-yard touchdown to Vaughns to cap a run of 35 unanswered points for the home team.
"It was pretty good, but at the same time how good is it [without] these guys," Slovis said when asked to assess his own performance. "I don't think it really shows how well I am, but it shows how good of a team we have around [me]."
Slovis was humble and low-key as usual in discussing his breakthrough starting debut. He smiled at times while listening to Helton and St. Brown mention him during the postgame press conference. But he did everything he could to downplay what was -- statistically speaking -- the best first start by a USC true freshman QB in program history.
So the question was posed to him as well -- could he have imagined 377 yards and 3 TDs Saturday night?
"Probably not," Slovis said with a smile and a quick shake of the head.
Well, at least someone in the Trojans locker room felt like the rest of the 62,000-plus in the Coliseum on Saturday night, still trying to process what had just happened and what it now means for this USC football season.