football Edit

USC's Darnold is a raw gamer who could have most upside of QB crop

CLASS OF 2019 RANKINGS: Rivals250 | State | Position | Team

Sam Darnold
Sam Darnold (AP Images)

MORE: Wyoming's Josh Allen keeps analysts guessing to the end | Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield has silenced the doubters all his life - can he do it in the NFL?

Sam Darnold, who might be the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft on Thursday night, left so many different impressions in only two seasons playing quarterback at USC.

“Out of all these guys, based on what I watched, he’ll make so many splash plays that will make you marvel at how good he is and then you’ll see him do some things that show some immaturity - leaving the pocket early, doing some things where he’s relying on his athletic ability where he doesn’t always necessarily have to do that," ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit said. "His arm strength, his ability to improvise, coming out of an NFL-style offense in college at USC, I would put him at two.”

Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield tops Herbstreit’s list, while NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock has Darnold as the No. 1 quarterback on his board.

“Darnold might have the most upside if you’re looking four, five, six years down the road,” Herbstreit said. “He’s still raw. He could have used another year of college to grow and mature in certain areas. It’s easy for me to say. He may be the first pick overall ... It’s obvious why he came out."

One concern with Darnold is turnovers. That’s been discussed ad nauseum during the pre-draft process. He threw 22 interceptions and had 21 fumbles during his time with the Trojans. It’s a worry. And is it fixable?

Sam Darnold bobbles a high snap before fumbling against Notre Dame.
Sam Darnold bobbles a high snap before fumbling against Notre Dame. (AP Images)

“The guy is the gamer, the guy who’s supposed to play Brett Favre-like,” ESPN analyst Louis Riddick said of Darnold. “He doesn’t always make it look pretty, but he’s the guy who people think in the clutch is the guy you would want on the football field. Someone who’s working really hard on his mechanics and his consistency in the pocket, as far as how he delivers the ball from a platform standpoint so he could be more consistent. Is he a finished product? Not by any means at all.” National Recruiting Director Mike Farrell is not sold on the USC star.

“I don’t think he’s a rah-rah leader, and you don’t have to be a vocal leader as a quarterback - but it certainly helps,” Farrell said. “He doesn’t appear to have any of that. He’s a leader by example, but I think in the NFL to be successful, a lot of these guys you see who are successful are the leader on their football team - vocally and by example.

“I also worry about the turnovers, the fumbles as much as anything. Interceptions are not good, but fumbles will just destroy you and he put the ball on the ground way too much for me. For a guy who’s really only had a few elite games in his career, I’m just not sold on him being a franchise guy.”

After a stellar 2016 season, in which Darnold took over the starting job in late September and ended with 3,086 passing yards, 31 touchdowns and nine interceptions, he came back in 2017 as the Heisman Trophy front-runner and college football’s poster boy.

He was coming off an historical performance in USC’s come-from-behind victory over Penn State in the Rose Bowl, throwing for 453 yards, five touchdowns and an interception. He was being discussed as No. 1 pick material, which he still is even after an average 2017 campaign during which he threw 13 interceptions and lost the ball far too often.

For Mayock, though, as he studied the quarterback draft class, he came to the conclusion that each one has their flaws. That consideration, along with Darnold’s body of work in two seasons at USC, led to Mayock tagging Darnold tops at the position.

“People were so anticipating this class, it surprises people when we really start to pick our way through them and really grind the tape,” Mayock said. “To put it in perspective, the two easiest quarterback evaluations I’ve had in the last eight or 10 years are Andrew Luck and Carson Wentz. That’s because everything checked off on both the film and all the intangibles. Those guys walked and talked like Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Russell Wilson, et cetera.

“I don’t see anybody in this class that I get the same gut feel for as those two. Darnold is my No. 1 guy because I think he can beat you from both inside the pocket and outside the pocket, but after him I feel like you can kind of pick apart different characteristics of each player.”

One characteristic that Darnold can’t dodge is that he’s a former USC quarterback - and those players have not exactly killed it in the NFL recently. Matt Barkley. Matt Cassel. Cody Kessler. Mark Sanchez. Matt Leinart. Carson Palmer has an impressive resume, but he’s the lone exception.

Herbstreit doesn’t care about that when evaluating Darnold as a pro. On his own merits, Darnold will thrive or fail in the league, not because of other people’s success or failures. Not because of the school he came from.

“Sam Darnold is his own guy,” Herbstreit said. “You look at some of these SC quarterbacks and who their offensive coordinators have been and what their schemes have been, it’s a different set of circumstances for Sam and the offense he’s coming out of, with Clay Helton and the team he played with.

“You go back to '16 and he had JuJu Smith and he had a healthy offensive line and he had a great year. He was doing a lot of things where people were saying, ‘Oh my gosh, this guy in 2017 is definitely going to win the Heisman after that Rose Bowl. He is the face of college football. He is the man.’ Then he came back with a brand-new offensive line, three new starters, a whole new group of wide receivers, dealt with injuries up front. I think he started to try to maybe feel the pressure to do too much, started to leave the pocket a little bit early, probably learned some bad habits with that new line. He still had incredible moments, but he also dealt with turnovers.

“I don’t think Sam is sitting there and wondering about Matt Leinart and Mark Sanchez and Matt Barkley: 'I’ve got to break the trend here.' I don’t think anything those guys have done (has) anything to do with him. His skill set is unique, it’s different, his intangibles are off the charts, as far as how flatlined he is. Reminds me of a Joe Montana, as far as his approach to the game and his emotions during the game, good or bad. There is a lot to fall in love with. Because of what he brings to the table, 6-3, 220 pounds, can make plays out of the pocket, can create.

"I’ll be shocked if within three or four years, if we’re all on this call again, if Sam Darnold hasn’t established himself as a really good NFL quarterback.”