Shortly after he settled into a patio chair outside USC’s McKay Center on Wednesday, Max Browne was spied by a group of campus visitors who walked past.
“Hi, new quarterback,” one shouted, before another jogged over to shake Browne’s hand and wish him luck.
Browne, the Gatorade national high school player of the year, is the most high-profile player in USC’s football recruiting class. And the recognition factor will begin to increase exponentially next week when the Trojans open spring practice.
The 6-foot-5, 215-pound Browne graduated early from Skyline High in Sammamish, Wash., so he could enroll in January and compete against third-year sophomores Max Wittek and Cody Kessler to succeed Matt Barkley.
“Those guys have two years up on me, so it’s a little disadvantage,” Browne said. “At the same time, as long as I can pick up stuff quickly and adapt to college football, I think I should be fine.”
In the spring of 2009, Barkley was an early enrollee competing against older players. By fall, thanks to an injury suffered by Aaron Corp, he ascended to become the first true freshman in USC history to start an opener.
Four years later, the circumstances are different for Browne.
Former Trojans coach Pete Carroll had won two national titles and guided teams to seven consecutive Bowl Championship Series bowl games, giving him plenty of cachet when he gambled on starting Barkley as a freshman.
Fourth-year Coach Lane Kiffin is coming off a season in which the Trojans fell from preseason No. 1 to a 7-6 record. With USC administrators being bombarded by fans questioning Kiffin’s competency, it seems unlikely that the coach would put the team — and perhaps his future — in the hands of a freshman.
The blond, curly-haired Browne, 18, says he is ready for his initial opportunity. He was wearing a white Skyline Spartans athletic shirt, gray shorts, sports sandals and calf-high white socks on Wednesday but said he can’t wait to don his No. 4 jersey and get started.
“I feel like I can make all the throws and be a good decision-maker for the team,” he said. “Not turn the ball over — that’s the main thing. But I’m well aware that it’s going to take awhile for me to adjust.”
Browne is regarded as a quick study. He is the youngest of four brothers, all of whom played sports. His oldest brother, Mitch, played quarterback at Claremont McKenna College from 2001-2004 and resides in Southern California, providing Max a nearby support system.
Though he said he sometimes misses high school friends, Browne is happy to be in position to follow in the footsteps of Matt Leinart, John David Booty, Mark Sanchez and Barkley.
“Being a West Coast kid, especially at the quarterback position, it’s kind of your dream to grow up and go to USC,” he said.
Browne made a commitment to the Trojans in April 2012. Last season, he passed for 4,526 yards and 49 touchdowns, with five interceptions, while leading Skyline to a state championship.
He also watched as USC became the first preseason No. 1 team to finish with six defeats.
Several high school players who committed to the Trojans reopened their recruitment, but Browne said he “never really wavered,” citing the athletic and educational opportunities at USC.
“It was a shock to me when guys started to de-commit,” he said. “But at the end of the day, especially with the seven early enrollees and the guys that we knew were rock-solid, no matter what happened we knew we had a solid core group of guys.”
Browne is rooming with fellow freshmen Kenny Bigelow, a defensive lineman, and defensive backs Su’a Cravens and Chris Hawkins.
Though coaches cannot observe players during workouts with footballs until Tuesday, Browne already has made an impression. “He seems like a natural leader,” said defensive line coach Ed Orgeron, USC’s recruiting coordinator.
Browne has impressed teammates on the field during players-only workouts. “His mechanics are really crisp and his huddle presence and his whole field presence is there as well,” sophomore receiver Victor Blackwell said. “The way he projects his voice, the way he leads, it’s all there. I’m excited to see him compete at game speed.”
Browne said that Wittek and Kessler have aided his preparation.
“Being the young kid coming in and we’re all competing, some might think that they might be brushing me off,” he said. “That’s not the case at all. During workouts, I’m asking both of them questions and they don’t hesitate to answer.