Jack Sears and Matt Fink both think they're far more prepared to be Southern California's next starting quarterback after a busy, productive spring running the Trojans' offense.
They also realize the competition for Sam Darnold's old job won't really begin until after that high school kid in the backpack joins them in the summer.
Fink and Sears wrapped up their first spring after Darnold's departure Saturday with a brisk practice in front of a few hundred fans on USC's downtown campus.
The two veteran Trojans' every move was followed by J.T. Daniels, the backpack-wearing recruit who is graduating from Orange County's Mater Dei High School a full year early so he can join the USC program this year.
Daniels is one of the nation's top quarterback prospects after going 15-0 at Mater Dei last season, and he attended almost every spring practice, soaking up information and getting to know his fellow Trojans. Many USC fans see Daniels as a tantalizing bridge forward from Darnold, who won the Rose Bowl and the Pac-12 in two outstanding seasons as the starter.
Coach Clay Helton confirmed Daniels plans to enroll at USC in time to participate in the upcoming player-run summer workouts leading up to training camp, putting him in position to create a true three-man competition for the job in August.
"I've always thought that spring really helps you," said Helton, a former quarterbacks coach. "(But) it's also about what you do in the summer, and that's also an opportunity for J.T. and Matt and Jack and Holden (Thomas) to really have the opportunity to see where they're at."
Given a head start, Sears and Fink took every spring workout as a chance to learn and to establish their ability with the coaches. Helton declined to rank his quarterbacks, and he doesn't plan to name a starter until fall camp.
"Both of us have done a good job in the spring pushing each other," said Sears, Darnold's former backup at San Clemente High School. "We've had a lot of fun doing it. Each practice, we come out and one of us really steps up, and it fires the other one up. Each practice, each rep, us pushing each other, that's really fun to watch."
For the first time since 1999, USC didn't stage a spring game at the Coliseum, which is currently a dirt pit while the nearly 95-year-old arena receives extensive renovations. The Trojans instead went through a fairly light workout in pads on an 85-degree day, and Fink said the Trojans didn't use any interesting parts of their playbook because the practice was broadcast on television.
Fink, a third-year sophomore from the outer Los Angeles suburbs, completed six passes for 43 yards last season as Darnold's seldom-used backup.
"I don't think there's a place for anybody right now, and the coaches are doing a good job keeping it even," Fink said. "I'm just trying to keep working as hard as I can and keep my head down and be a great teammate."
Darnold is headed to the NFL draft later this month as a probable high first-round pick after a memorable tenure as the Trojans' starter under Helton. He won nine consecutive games after winning the job early in the 2016 season, setting a number of records in USC's Rose Bowl victory, before passing for 4,143 yards and leading the Trojans to the Pac-12 title last season.
Except for Max Browne's three-game stint before Darnold took over in 2016, the Trojans have had only three true starting quarterbacks in the past nine years. Both Fink and Sears would love to get the high-pressure job, but they also understand they're months away from a resolution.
"We had some hiccups in the beginning," Fink said. "Right now at this point, we're better than we were, but we have a lot to learn as a team. For myself, I think I have a long ways to go. I'm excited to keep working and getting better."