PITTSBURGH (AP) _ Max Browne didn’t uproot himself and travel halfway across the country to spend his one season in Pittsburgh as the backup quarterback.
It’s why the USC graduate transfer headed from sunny Los Angeles to wintry Pittsburgh in January, eager to get a jump start on his last best shot at reviving a career that never bloomed with the Trojans.
Three months into his new gig, plenty of work remains to be done. Browne salvaged an admittedly “bleh” afternoon with a late scoring drive during Pitt’s spring game on Saturday. His late 27-yard touchdown pass to Tre Tipton was hardly a thing of beauty – it sailed over the wrong shoulder and forced Tipton to make a diving, twisting grab in the end zone.
Still, Tipton caught it. Hey, it’s a start.
“That’s a big time drive, that’s the explosion you like to see,” Browne said.
Browne just would have liked to see a little bit more of it. He finished 13 of 28 for 144 yards and the one score during an afternoon in which he was simultaneously the old guy and the new guy. Spring drills began with Browne making what he called “rookie” mistakes, particularly when it came to going through the pre-snap sequence. Yet over the course of 15 practices he felt he built momentum heading into camp.
“I got that (pre-snap) part down and was just playing good ball after that, which is huge and why I came in here,” Browne said.
In a way, Browne is on level footing with sophomore Ben DiNucci, redshirt freshman Thomas MacVittie and true freshman Kenny Pickett, all of whom are trying to learn first-year offensive coordinator Shawn Watson’s system on the fly. While Watson isn’t making a significant departure from the productive (and unconventional) approach taken by predecessor Matt Canada (now in the same job at LSU), the Panthers do expect to throw the ball downfield more in 2017.
Watson may have tipped his hand a bit on the opening snap Saturday as Browne handed it off to Qadree Ollison only to have Ollison then pitch it back to him on a flea-flicker. Maurice Ffrench was open down the middle of the field, but the pass came high and late before being broken up by Avonte Maddox.
It was that way for each of the first five series with Browne under center. He was 8 of 20 until his penultimate drive thanks to a handful of drops and a couple of deep balls that were well off target. His Blue team down and forced to pick up the pace, Browne – who started three games for the Trojans last season before being replaced in favor of Sam Darnold – finally got something going. Three straight completions covered 72 yards, the final 27 to Tipton.
Narduzzi was quick to praise all four quarterbacks and said there is a leader in the race between Browne and DiNucci (who went 5 for 5 for 60 yards). Narduzzi just isn’t tipping his hand. As he pointed out, the Panthers still have 140 days to prepare for the 2017 opener against Youngstown State on Sept 2.
Besides, few coaches seem to get a kick out of putting an `OR’ on the depth chart than Narduzzi. He uses it as a motivational tool and a reminder that no jobs are assured. That’s fine by both Browne and DiNucci.
“When he’s out there, it’s friendly competition,” DiNucci said. “We’re cheering each other on, trying to get better every day.”