LOS ANGELES -- USC quarterback Sam Darnold lofted a deep pass Saturday that hung in the air too long and was intercepted by cornerback Jack Jones.

"I just gave (the wide receiver) a chance," Darnold said.

It was the type of pass Darnold would not throw in last year's training camp when locked in a tight quarterback competition with Max Browne. His first interception at last season's camp was on Aug. 12.

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But there was a different early feel to this first practice of the season. There is far less suspense. Many positions have definite starters. There are more competitions for backup positions than starting jobs.

That leads to an extra level of confidence as training camp starts, bolstered by preseason polls that have USC as a College Football Playoff contender.

"We know the hype is here," safety Chris Hawkins said. "The standard of USC is to win national championships and Pac-12 championships. When everybody is talking about you, all you want to do is prove them right."

Perhaps the biggest danger is overconfidence or getting too comfortable. But right now, that does not seem to be an issue.

"I couldn't sleep last night, I was so excited," Hawkins said. "I felt like a freshman."

Even though USC won the Rose Bowl last season, it didn't accomplish it's basic preseason goals: Like winning a conference title.

It might surprise some to point out USC last won a Pac-12 Conference title in 2008. If the Trojans fail this season, someone is going to be a scapegoat. And by someone, we mean Coach Clay Helton.

But Helton has the luxury at this training camp of evaluating younger players without necessarily needing them to play. He pointed out Saturday that sophomore defensive ends Oluwole Betiku and Connor Murphy looked better than just a few months ago.

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Does USC need them to make significant contributions this season? Possibly. But neither is expected to start at the moment.

A year ago, every pass Darnold and Browne was charted by the media, looking for an edge between the quarterbacks. After Saturday's practice, Helton was asked whether true freshman Jack Sears or redshirt freshman Matt Fink would be the backup? Helton said he would know in 17 more practices.

Not quite the same sense of urgency. And this time, Helton knows he won't get criticized like he did a year ago when he took four games to finally start Darnold.

Even the secondary lost some of its uncertainty when Helton said cornerback Jonathan Lockett, who started five games last season, would undergo hip surgery and is out indefinitely. That almost assures the three starting cornerbacks in a nickel defense will be Iman Marshall, Jack Jones and Ajene Harris.

During Saturday's practice, there was more camaraderie than competition. Veteran wide receiver Jalen Greene along with tight ends Daniel Imatorbhebhe and Tyler Petite gave tips to the freshmen.

"You don't want to come in to college and try and do everything on your own," Hawkins said. "It's not going to work for you. You've got guys all around you that have it before. This is my fifth (training camp)."

Hawkins is looking after freshmen safety Bubba Bolden and cornerback Greg Johnson.

"Bubba and I are like best buddies," Hawkins said. "I took it upon myself to help Greg Johnson. He's from here. I'm really getting into the defense with him, how it's about not getting too high or too low."

USC seems pretty even-keeled at the moment. But this is still USC, so you never know where unexpected drama might come from. Right now, everything is calm. But if there is an early season loss to Texas or Stanford, all the old questions will resurface. 

This article is written by Scott Wolf from Los Angeles Daily News and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.