Seventeen long months had passed since Miller Moss last stepped into a huddle, but when he arrived at USC during the spring as one of two touted freshmen vying to emerge as the heir apparent to quarterback Kedon Slovis, Moss expected to pick up right where he left off in high school.
“I don’t think it was a realistic expectation,” the freshman realizes now.
Moss has never lacked confidence, but the long layoff from football left him feeling overwhelmed. Suddenly, everything was faster and more competitive. The transition proved to be a steeper learning curve than he expected. While Jaxson Dart, the Trojans’ other four-star freshman quarterback, turned heads with his big arm and big-play potential, Moss spent most of the spring just finding his footing.
The disparity was enough for some to quickly anoint Dart over his counterpart. But a few days into a critical fall camp that could determine the direction USC takes with its next quarterback, Moss appears to have closed that gap to some degree.
“I just keep feeling better and better,” Moss said.
That’s been clear on the field through four days of fall camp. Moss has looked much more comfortable and confident commanding the offense. After settling too often for checkdowns in the spring, the freshman has taken more shots down the field as his confidence has grown.
Not all of those throws have been on target. On Tuesday, he laced a deep throw into coverage, but was bailed out by a jaw-dropping, one-handed snag from tight end Josh Falo. The fact that he trusted himself to make the throw suggested some measure of progress from spring.
“We want to throw completions, we want to take care of the football, but at the same time, we don’t want to be overconservative,” offensive coordinator Graham Harrell said. “So that’s something we’ve talked about with him, and he’s done a good job of taking that coaching and doing it.”
The summer, Moss said, made a major difference in that regard. During USC’s player-run practice periods, he felt free “to take chances and make mistakes.”
“I’ve definitely tried to be more aggressive,” Moss said. “I think there are plays that can go either way, and those are the ones on the borderline that I’ve tried to push and take different chances.”
For Dart, that approach has never been a problem.
“My play style is pretty aggressive,” Dart said. “I kind of like to take risky chances here and there.”
After a dynamic spring, some of those risks have backfired through the first four days of fall camp. When they have, Harrell challenges Dart to quickly move past his mistakes.
“He talks about it like we have a gunslinger mentality,” Dart said. “So if I make a mistake, I just have to shake it off, try to make the next play better. Just try to play within myself.”
While Moss sat out his final high school season because of the pandemic, Dart excelled as a senior at Corner Canyon High in Draper, Utah, throwing for 67 touchdowns and rushing for 12 more on his way to National Gatorade Player of the Year honors.
The charmed season proved to be a perfect steppingstone into the spring, Dart said.
“I think it gave me a lot of confidence,” Dart said. “Everything kind of has played in my favor with just being a little bit more comfortable in this style of offense. I was lucky for sure at Corner Canyon because I just had such a strong foundation and a great core of players and bonds with kids. So I’m just going to try and carry that over.”
That advantage was clear in the spring, as Dart emerged as the favorite to earn the backup job behind Slovis, who remains entrenched as the starter. Neither freshman was eager to discuss the status of that battle Tuesday, but Dart admitted that the backup job was “for sure” on his mind during camp.
“My whole life, I’ve been able to be the guy,” Dart said. “We have a ton of competition in our room, and it’s great because it brings the best out of all of us. I have my goals, and I’m just going to keep pushing for them.”
Dart has a feeling he and Moss share one goal in particular — to be the future of USC football.
“He’s the Gatorade Player of the Year,” Moss said of Dart. “It’s not like I’m competing with some bum. But I think competition only makes you better. It’s been really cool. Some days I wish I hated Jaxson. It would make it easier. But he’s a really good dude.”