LOS ANGELES (AP) — Jaxson Dart, who grew up in northern Utah, apparently didn’t have a complete understanding of what makes Southern California’s rivalry with UCLA so compelling.
The Trojans’ 18-year-old rookie quarterback is well aware that he will get a crash lesson in the emotions and intensity of Los Angeles’ crosstown rivalry.
Dart will make his first career start for USC (4-5, 3-4 Pac-12) against UCLA on Saturday at the Coliseum (6-4, 4-3). Third-year starter Kedon Slovis is still out with a lower leg injury, allowing Dart to assume complete command of the Trojans’ offence after three outings in relief this season.
“I wouldn’t have expected to make my first start in a rivalry game like this,” Dart added. “All the feelings and the history of it all.” I’m ecstatic about the chance, and I’m ready to go.”
Dart is the first USC quarterback to make his first career start versus UCLA since Scott Tinsley in 1980, although he isn’t entirely new. Despite losing time due to surgery for a torn meniscus in his right knee in September, he has already seen significant playing time this season. Dart made an impressive debut versus Washington State two months ago, going on in relief of an injured Slovis and passing for 391 yards and four touchdowns despite hurting his knee in the first half. Dart was sidelined for a month, but he returned for the Trojans’ last two games.
“All it boils down to is that I’m getting more reps now, so I’m able to get into a better rhythm and acquire a better feel for the offence,” he explained.
Dart is accustomed to surprising people: he switched to a different high school for his senior year and went on to become the nation’s leading passer and the Gatorade National Player of the Year.
Despite receiving a lot of interest late in the recruiting season, he chose USC over UCLA and other schools. Dart was impressed by Chip Kelly and Jason Kaufusi, the Bruins’ outside linebackers coach, who played with Dart’s father, safety Brandon Dart, at the University of Utah.
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Despite his youth and lack of local links, Dart has made himself at home on USC’s downtown campus. Dart’s rise is a bright spot in a disappointing season for the Trojans, who were thrown into disarray two months ago when athletic director Mike Bohn sacked coach Clay Helton is two games into his sixth season as head coach.
“He was a young guy from out of state, but he just fit right in,” recalled center Brett Neilon. “He’s pals with everyone in the locker room, and when he stepped up in Washington State, he appeared to have a few of starts under his belt. Being only 18 and leading some guys in their twenties is quite amazing.”
Dart knocked out another highly rated rookie Miller Moss for the backup role, then took advantage of the opportunity to impress USC interim coach Donte Williams, who admires Dart’s playful, athletic approach. He also appreciates Dart’s contribution to Williams’ first head coaching triumph in Pullman.
“I just want him to come out and lead us like I know he can,” Williams added.
When Dart was able to play again, Williams used a two-quarterback system for both games in which both Slovis and Dart could play, even though the arrangement didn’t make much sense to his teammates.