Let’s be honest playing quarter back at USC might be the best job in the whole of US sports.
Matt Leinart openly admits to spending more time partying with Snoop Dog than practice which maybe explains Leinart’s “limited” NFL career. Watching the sideline at a USC game is like a who’s who of Hollywood glitterati.
But despite the hype Sam Darnold, current Quarter Back for USC is the quiet Trojan in the Coliseum. Not on the field of course – he is a monster. But off the field he is quiet and unassuming. Darnold’s grandparents watch every practice and every game. He greets both with a peck on cheek after he finishes his work.
But the hype is large and all consuming. Last season Darnold made his debut at QB as a freshman (albeit he was a redshirt freshman), taking over from the Cody Kessler (now at the Browns) at a time when USC was trying hard to overturn a long period of crisis.
USC, the University of Southern California is a powerhouse of the College Game. They were so long before Pete Carroll (yes, he of Seahawk fame) arrived in University Park in downtown Los Angeles. But the Pete Carroll era, full of extreme highs and lows, cemented the football programs place in history. Named team of the decade (2000’s), two of USC’s total of 11 national championships were secured in a three year period and narrowly missing out on title number 3 in 3 losing to Texas in what has been described as arguably the greatest game in College folklore – the 2005 Rosebowl versus the University of Texas. Sadly life at the top was short-lived with the Reggie Bush scandal that followed (Bush was found guilty of accepting payments while still in college) and the resulting sanctions placed on USC lasting well into the new millennium which savaged the football program.
But back to Darnold. In the new regime under Clay Helton, USC were trying to find their way. Kessler moving on to the NFL, gave Darnold his first start (after USC benched the more experienced Max Browne). After losing his first start, Darnold’s magic started to make miracles happen. 2016 was good for USC and Darnold. USC remained unbeaten thereafter culminating in USC’s first Rosebowl appearance and win since 2005. Sam’s star was shining brightly. He broke records – first QB in school history with 5 touchdowns passes in consecutive games. First USC QB since Matt Leinart to throw for a touchdown in 8 straight games. He also ran. He rushed for the most yards for a school QB since 1991. A linebacker in high school, it was his now coach Clay Helton who saw him as a QB. Very similar dynamics to Andrew Luck, he is a big lad with a great arm and is very mobile. But unlike other big, mobile college QB’s (I’m thinking Tebow), he sits in the pocket and throws a bullet of a ball. So no surprise that the NFL started to sit up and take notice.
The 2017 season started with Darnold as Heisman favourite. A nonsense in all honesty as the last time I looked there were 15 weeks on my calendar between the start of the season and the Heisman winner being announced. And so proved the case. The weight of expectations weighed heavy on Sam’s and USC’s shoulders. It also showed Darnold’s weaknesses. By midway through the season he had thrown as many interceptions as he had in the whole of the previous season. Not all could be laid at his door, however an Achilles heel was showing. USC rallied in the second half of the season but never looked like the bookies favourite back in early September. USC will play in this year’s Cotton Bowl in Dallas. Expect every NFL team to be represented.
Read any early draft mock drafts and you will see Darnold and UCLA’s Josh Rosen featured high. MMQB’s Peter King has Darnold going number 1 pick to the Browns (anyone else getting fed up hearing the Browns called #1?). Todd McShay also has Darnold at #1. It’s no secret that multiple NFL teams need playcallers. From the Browns everlong search for Mr Right, to the madness in New York (no longer obviously the Jets), Broncos, Cardinals, Bills I could go on……..
But wait, Hang on a minute. Isn’t Darnold only in his Sophomore year? Yes he is. He has played one and a bit seasons. By the time the fat man in red comes down the chimney, Sam will have completed two seasons. Is that enough to prepare him for an NFL career, with the expectations of a first pick? Well we have a very recent precedent. Cue one Mitchell Trubisky currently c/o Soldier Field. Mitch played only one and a bit seasons for the Tar Heels in North Carolina. And yet even for a Packer fan to admit, he has got off to a pretty decent start on Lake Shore Drive.
Darnold’s critics point to the number of turnovers, his footwork and questionable decision making (although a LOT of that can be blamed squarely at the door of his coaching staff). All of which can be solved by another year at USC. And here’s the rub – he hasn’t declared for the draft yet. We don’t know what his thoughts are, although we should soon find out. But I am sure there are as many people telling him to stay as those for him to go.
Should he stay or should he go? That my friends is the million dollar question. I have a feeling he might stay but the prospect of going number one in the draft and the contract that goes with it versus the risk of injury might swing it the other way. Although the thought of going to the Browns might have him running all the way back to Hollywood Boulevard.
Let’s be clear Darnold is no Andrew Luck. Luck is a once in a generation QB. However he has all the mechanics and the temperament to allow him to be top talent. Watch this space – Dallas in April will be fascinating.
This guest piece was written by George Somerville who supports the Green Bay Packers and college team Alabama. You can follow George on @geosomerville.