The announcement surprised few, especially around the campus that Darnold captivated last fall. Darnold had been the Heisman favorite for months on online betting sites (alas, I missed my chance to place a wager on him when he was a 9-1 underdog behind Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield), and he simply never seemed to share the field with any quarterback of his caliber during his debut campaign. Why wouldn’t he be the favorite — and perhaps a heavy one at that?
But pressure obviously comes with the spotlight, and more often than not, it’s actually a bad omen to open as the odds-on Heisman frontrunner. Remember Leonard Fournette’s 2016 season? Or Trevonne Boykin’s 2015 campaign? Me neither.
This is usually the moment I like to engage my sports-fan defense mechanism and become a relentless pessimist — you can’t disappoint me if I set the bar low enough. Instinctively, I want to remind everyone about 2012, when preseason No. 1 USC and Heisman favorite Matt Barkley were touted to win it all before finishing unranked at 7-6 in a reeking dumpster fire of a season. I want to scream that high expectations haven’t done any good for the Trojans in recent years and that the hype is setting a stacked squad up for failure.
But I can’t do that for this year’s team (next year’s?) without feeling like a hypocrite. No matter how hard I try to brace myself for disappointment, I can’t help being pumped for the fall. I don’t want to jinx the Trojans (I probably just did), but they feel invincible.
Ever since Darnold made his home debut against Arizona State last October, USC has looked like the best team in the nation — and the Trojans proved it in their miraculous Rose Bowl victory over No. 5 Penn State, who had beaten the likes of Ohio State and Wisconsin during the regular season.
More importantly, however, nothing ever seemed to get to Darnold last season. Nothing. And that is a trend that must continue if he is to win the Heisman and lead the Trojans to glory next year. Darnold lost his first career start at Utah but bounced back immediately, pummeling the Sun Devils one week later.
He delivered an upset win in Seattle over No. 4 Washington and followed that up with rivalry wins over UCLA and Notre Dame. Then he led the Rose Bowl comeback.
All the while, Darnold remained unfathomably unflappable. Whether he suffered a strip-sack or completed a 50-yard bomb, the reaction was the same: jog over to the sidelines to talk it over with head coach Clay Helton — mixing in a few high-fives after the positive plays. Throw a pick? Jog to the sidelines. Touchdown? Jog to the sidelines. Complete a pass left-handed and between-the-legs while rolling out against the grain? Jog to the sidelines (probably).
My limited interactions with Darnold haven’t suggested anything different. He exudes a love for football throughout conversation, but in a way, he also appears more excited about playing pickup basketball with his teammates during the offseason.
When my co-editor Julia Poe was fortunate enough to share a meal with the Darnold family last month, she saw what the Trojan quarterback has been since childhood: a natural-born athlete who just wants to have fun with the ball in his hands, whether it’s on the court or the gridiron on Saturdays.
That is what makes me so confident about the coming season. How can Darnold buckle under pressure when he looks completely oblivious to it in the first place? Even as his celebrity grows, he has shown no signs of becoming weary of the media scrutiny, nor is he basking in it.
He remains soft-spoken and even-keel, despite being touted as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft as a teenager. Very few young players in Darnold’s circumstances have been able to avoid the pitfalls of superstardom, especially in a city like Los Angeles that is so focused on the creation of celebrities.
Yet he has. Perhaps that is the final piece that will finally allow the Trojans to rise to high expectations after the dark days of the post-Pete Carroll era.
It may seem silly to derive so much hope from intangibles — especially since USC’s glory years under Carroll came with Hollywood glitz and glamour. But we’ve seen plenty of very tangible talents on campus, from Leonard Williams to Adoree’ Jackson, and plenty of personality, be it in coaches such as Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian or in players like JuJu Smith-Schuster. While exciting at times, all of those people departed the program without the ultimate currency in Trojan lore: a national championship. Darnold certainly has the talent, but it may be his borderline-bizarre understatedness that ultimately puts him above other Trojan legends of the past.
All of this is to say: If there is one player who can overcome the jinx of being preseason Heisman favorite, it’s Darnold. In addition to his unquestionable talent (which all Heisman contenders possess), Darnold has also shown the humility and focus you rarely see from an anonymous college freshman turned national sensation. He could very well add the Heisman to his decorated trophy cabinet next December — and he may add a National Championship a few weeks after that.
You probably won’t hear him say anything about it, though.
Ollie Jung is junior studying print and digital journalism. He is also the sports editor for the Daily Trojan. His column, “Jung Money,” runs on Thursdays.