Max Browne had a plan when he signed with USC in 2013 as one of the nation's most celebrated prep quarterbacks. That plan emerged from self-confidence, and that self-confidence grew out of what his talent and work ethic had consistently produced -- big passing numbers and winning.
"My plan when I got [to USC] -- not to sound cocky -- was I was going to start right away, work my butt off, and then at the three-year mark I'd have the opportunity to kind of decide to forgo my senior year [and enter NFL draft] or come back and do it again," Browne sad. "That was the plan in my head. Things went differently.”
Browne enrolled early in the spring of 2013 with the hopes of beating out returning sophomore starter Cody Kessler. Instead, he ended up redshirting, and unseating a two-year starter is rare, even with the arrival of new coach Steve Sarkisian in 2014.
So Browne, a rising redshirt junior, watched Kessler for three years, only seeing scant, mop-up action. He also saw two head coaches fired and multiple reshufflings of the Trojans offensive staff and its schemes. Browne's plans, not unlike the Trojans, changed.
Still, he's now eyeballing his first spring without a name ahead of his on the depth chart. His plan has been deferred and rewritten, but his potential end game remains available: USC starter, NFL draft choice.
Browne owns a clear-eyed view of how things worked out and where he needed to improve, lessons he plans to incorporate into his competition with talented -- and more athletic -- redshirt freshman Sam Darnold. He talks about resiliency, work ethic and dealing with disappointment. He agrees with the notion that he might be mentally stronger than he was three years ago when everything behind center seemed to come easy -- until it didn't.
"I got beat out fair and square," he said. "It took me longer than I thought it would to probably grasp things, especially that first spring. In hindsight, I think I was very critical of myself, very hard on myself. That's a criticism I'd have on myself.”
Some might have forgotten just how touted the 6-foot-5, 220-pound Browne was. A three-year starter at Skyline (Washington) High School, he'd won consecutive 4A state titles -- Washington's largest classification -- and set state records for passing yards (12,953, eighth best nationally) and completions (882) while completing 70 percent of his throws with 146 touchdowns. His senior season, he passed for 4,526 yards with 49 touchdowns and five interceptions and his team went unbeaten.
ESPN Recruiting's analysis? "Browne is one of the more complete passers in this class in terms of measurables, arm strength and ability to make all the throws."
The good news for whoever wins the QB job is he will be supported by impressive talent. Ten returning starters as well as plenty of experienced backups will surround the new QB. The Trojans should have the Pac-12's best offensive line, and the returning skill players, including likely preseason All-American receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and running backs Ronald Jones and Justin Davis, own tremendous upside.
USC and its new QB won't slide into 2016 with an easy opener. The Trojans get defending national champion Alabama in Arlington, Texas, in Week 1, a game that figures to inspire epic hype, both as a quality intersectional game between perennial national powers and as a matchup with tremendous history to it.
"When you know you've got the reigning national champions waiting for you in Week 1, you can't waste a single moment, a single rep," Browne said. "That fuels the fire in you, for sure. Can't ask for better stage than that.”
Of course, Browne already knows plans can go awry. Darnold has raised more than a few eyebrows, and coaches love QBs who can run. Browne has already graduated and plans to pursue his MBA. If things don't go his way this spring, he could opt for a graduate transfer, which means he could leave for another FBS program and not sit out in 2016.
Said Browne, "You're aware of every single option, but I fully plan to win the starting job here, to start and finish my career here.”
That's a plan he seems pretty set on not changing.