After a disappointing Cotton Bowl loss, one pressing question lingered in the minds of Trojan fans: What will happen to Sam Darnold? On Wednesday at 4:16 p.m., the redshirt sophomore quarterback posted a video on Instagram stating his intention to declare for the 2018 NFL Draft.
He was followed to the NFL by fellow offensive playmakers, juniors running back Ronald Jones II and wide receiver Deontay Burnett.
“After talking to my immediate family, very close friends, and many people who have helped me throughout my life, I have made the decision to declare for the NFL Draft,” Darnold said in the video.
Darnold went on to say that he is thankful for the coaches and mentors who have helped him better his life both off and on the field.
“The people who have been involved in making me the man I am today have prepared me for the life and decisions that I have to make in the future,” he said.
Through that mentorship, Darnold has proven himself as one of the elite quarterbacks that the NCAA has to offer. After taking over as the Trojans’ starting quarterback in the fourth game of the 2016 season, Darnold tallied 3,086 yards, 31 touchdowns and a Rose Bowl victory. The following season, he recorded 4,143 yards and 26 touchdowns but couldn’t mark his second bowl game win. It was the first 4,000-yard passing season in USC history.
The USC quarterback’s Instagram announcement was posted just minutes after UCLA QB Josh Rosen also declared for the draft.
Darnold was not the only record-setting Trojan to announce his departure. A fellow backfield member, running back Ronald Jones II, also declared for the NFL Draft just two days later.
“Because of the prayers, love, and support of so many people, I feel I am genuinely ready for the challenges and successes of the NFL,” Jones said in a letter announcing his decision.
Jones arrived at USC from McKinney, Tex., in 2015 and made his presence felt immediately. He led the team with 987 rushing yards — the most ever for a freshman in school history.
Affectionately referred to as the “Texas Tesla” by fans, the speedster upped the ante in his sophomore year, eclipsing the 1,000-yard mark and earning All- Pac-12 second team honors.
In his third and final campaign, a bulked-up Jones rumbled for 1,550 yards, with 19 touchdowns, making first team All- Pac-12, alongside Darnold. Jones ran for over 100 yards on nine occasions this season, including a 216-yard performance against Arizona State and a 140-yard game in the Pac-12 Championship.
Always a home-run threat during his career with the Trojans, “Rojo” finishes his career as the fifth all-time rusher in USC history. He is currently projected to be a second-round pick by many draft analysts.
Deontay Burnett emerged as one of Darnold’s favorite targets, with a breakthrough performance in the 2017 Rose Bowl (164 yards and three touchdowns). In his junior year, he proved to be more than a one-hit wonder, as Burnett led the Trojans with 1,114 yards receiving and nine touchdowns.
“The NFL has been a lifelong dream of mind and I feel I am ready to take on this next challenge in my life,” Burnett wrote in a Twitter post.
Replacing Darnold, Jones and Burnett will be a difficult task for the USC coaching staff moving forward. Darnold and Jones alone combined for over 80 percent of the team’s total offense in 2017.
At quarterback, freshman Jack Sears and redshirt freshman Matt Fink will likely compete for the starting quarterback position, alongside incoming recruit JT Daniels. The five-star Daniels was originally a member of the 2019 class, but recently announced his intention to reclassify and join USC by Fall camp.
Losing Burnett will be a major blow, but the next Trojans’ starting quarterback will not lack offensive weapons to throw to. Redshirt freshman Tyler Vaughns and sophomore Michael Pittman Jr. combined for 1,213 yards receiving in 2017.
Replacing Jones at running back should also be a relatively clear-cut process. Freshman Stephen Carr showed flashes of brilliance in his debut campaign, despite being hampered by injuries (363 yards, three touchdowns). Meanwhile, redshirt freshman Vavae Malepeai displayed a bruising physical, running style with limited carries (261 yards, 5.3 yards per carry). They are joined by the more experienced Aca’Cedric Ware, a junior running back.
“My sincerest thanks to all of my coaches and teammates at the University of Southern California,” Jones wrote. “I am truly going to miss you guys. Go win that national championship for me next season.”