The Top 10 Quarterbacks In USC History

Written By


carson palmer

Over the years, USC has become a breeding ground for great quarterback play. Being the starting quarterback at Southern Cal is almost as prominent as starting center fielder for the New York Yankees.

It’s a position that automatically comes with fame, prestige, and expectations.

The Trojans have 39 conference titles in their storied football history and claim nine national championships. The ‘USC quarterback’ has become an NFL prototype. Tall, big-armed, many California-bred stars have left USC for professional acclaim.

We still remember them, though, when they were Fighting On for USC.

Here are 10 of the best quarterbacks to wear the gold and cardinal.

MORE: Best USC players of all-time | 2022-23 USC odds

10. Todd Marinovich

Ok, I will level with you, Marinovich probably isn’t the 10th best quarterback in USC history, but his story is one of the best (sorry Cody Kessler). The son of a former USC captain, Marinovich was a high school phenom throwing for 9,914 yards.

He came to USC and was the first freshman to start an opener for the Trojans since World War II. He finished his college career with 5,001 yards, but clashed with his coaches.

Controversially, Marinovich left USC after the 1990 season and was picked by the Raiders. His NFL career was plagued by drug problems and he never realized the success that appeared certain. His life and story were chronicled in the ESPN 30 for 30 film The Marinovich Project.

9. Vince Evans

Evans still ranks second on the USC lists with most yards ran for by a quarterback (533). He was Pat Haden’s back-up on the 1974 national championship team, then took over in 1975. That ’75 team started 7-0, but lost to Cal and finished 8-4.

In 1976, Evans led the Trojans to an 11-1 record, and a victory over Michigan in the Rose Bowl. The Trojans were edged out of the national title by Pitt and star running back Tony Dorsett.

Evans had a long pro career, mainly as a back-up, playing with the Bears and Raiders and in the first United States Football League.

8. Sam Darnold

The precocious Darnold was a shooting star with the Trojans, throwing for a school record 4,143 yards as a sophomore in 2017, and who can ever forget his performance (453 passing yards) epic Rose Bowl clash with Penn State in the 2017 Rose Bowl?

After two years as a starter, Darnold opted for the NFL Draft (unthinkable back in the day). He was selected No. 3 overall by the New York Jets, where he was just 13-25 as a starter. He’s now trying to revive his career with the Carolina Panthers.

7. Pat Haden

Haden was part of national championship teams for USC in 1972 and 1974. Granted, back then, USC was a ground-oriented team, but Haden was a steady, consistent performer. He threw for 988 yards and 13 touchdowns as a senior. Those were big numbers for the time.

Literally a Rhodes Scholar, Haden went into the NFL and is the answer to a great trivia question: who took over for Joe Namath with the Rams? (basically ending Namath’s career). Haden had some great moments in the pros, but injuries shortened his career. He became a respected broadcaster and was USC’s athletic director from 2010 to 2016.

6. Rodney Peete

Peete gets overlooked now, but when he left USC he had rewritten the football record book…all while playing baseball at the school.

Peete started 40 games for the Trojans, with his best year coming in 1988, when he directed USC to a 10-2 record and a Rose Bowl berth. He finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting that year (Barry Sanders won).

In the pros, Peete always seemed to be battling an injury. He had a long career with the Lions, Cowboys, Eagles, Redskins, Raiders and Panthers.

5. Mark Sanchez

Sanchez sat for most of his first two seasons in Los Angeles, but then emerged as a star in 2008 throwing for 3,207 yards and 24 touchdowns for the Trojans.

USC was ranked No. 1 during that season but lost to Oregon State and finished third. Sanchez left USC early (against Coach Pete Carroll’s wishes) and was drafted by the New York Jets.

Unfortunately, his pro career is best known for his mishap, the Buttfumble, against the New England Patriots when Sanchez collided with an offensive lineman’s backside and lost the ball, but he also took the Jets to the AFC title game in 2009 and 2010.

4. Matt Barkley

Of all the great quarterbacks to play at USC, Barkley has the record for most passing yards with 12,327 and has the most touchdowns with 116.

Another homegrown product, Barkley was a four-year starter for the Trojans. His best year was 2011, when the Trojans went 10-2 and finished sixth in the AP poll. In his senior year, USC started off preseason No. 1, but lost to Stanford and fell apart late, losing five of its last six games.

No lie, I was watching some preseason football last week, and I saw Barkley slinging it for the Buffalo Bills. He was picked by the Eagles in the fourth round of the 2013 NFL Draft and has bounced around mainly as a backup, making just seven starts in his pro career.

3. Pete Beathard

He was a three-year starter for the Trojans from 1961-63 and led the squad to the national title in 1962, when he threw for 948 yards, 10 touchdowns and just one interception.

That season was capped by the memorable Rose Bowl against Wisconsin. It was the first time a bowl game had ever pit the No. 1 vs. No. 2 teams in the AP poll. USC won 42-37.

Showing how much the game has changed, the most passes Beathard ever threw in a season was 140. That’s like four games these days.

The California-born Beathard was picked in both the NFL and AFL Draft in 1964. He signed with the Kansas City Chiefs, where he backed up Len Dawson, then bounced around playing for the Houston Oilers, Cardinals, Rams and in the World Football League.

2. Matt Leinart

A storied career at USC during one of the program’s greatest eras, Leinart still ranks third on the career passing yards list. He led the Trojans to a split national title in 2003 (these were the Bowl Championship Series days) and a consensus No. 1 ranking in 2004. Leinart won the Heisman in 2004 and that USC team is perhaps the best in school history.

In 2005, the Trojans and Leinart were vanquished by Vince Young in the Rose Bowl (we don’t need to name the school Young played for, it was all him).

In the pros, Leinart failed to find his footing after being taken in the first round by the Cardinals. He started 11 games as a rookie but spent six seasons mainly as a reserve.

1. Carson Palmer

One of two players on this list to win a Heisman Trophy, Palmer looked and fit the part of a USC quarterback perfectly. Big, strong, confident and inspiring, Palmer ranks second on the USC passing yards list with 11,818. He played in 53 games at USC.

In the pros, Palmer started out strong with the Cincinnati Bengals, but a knee injury in the playoffs set back his career (and is the reason the NFL changed the rule about hitting a quarterback low). Palmer went on to play for the Raiders and Arizona Cardinals and was named to three Pro Bowls.