Darnold is quickly settling into leadership role
For any holdouts not yet drinking the Sam Darnold Kool-Aid, Saturday’s 48-14 win over Arizona should’ve done the trick. The redshirt freshman quarterback dazzled once again, throwing, scrambling and running circles all over the Wildcats’ defense to the tune of 235 yards and five touchdowns.
And yet, Darnold hardly flashed a smile when head coach Clay Helton pulled him in the fourth quarter with a big lead to put in backup redshirt junior Max Browne.
“You throw five touchdown passes — you’d think you get a smile and he’s like, ‘Coach, there’s more out there,’” Helton said.
Sure, there were throws that Darnold missed. The first play of the game, he uncorked a deep throw for junior wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster that went awry. On the next drive, he went long for senior wide receiver Darreus Rogers, but it sailed high.
But still, given that he connected with Smith-Schuster nine times for three touchdowns and completed 20 of 32 passes on the day for a stellar 94.6 quarterback rating, focusing on one or two bad throws would be nit-picking — but not for Darnold.
One could call him modest, but Darnold spoke after the game with a tone of confidence, that there definitely was more he could have done.
“You saw the long balls in the first half,” Darnold said. “Guys were open and I missed them. I had JuJu — it was man [coverage] and he’s going to win most of the time. I missed him. I skipped my progression and went on to someone else. We’ll look at it in film. There’s definitely more out there to be scored.”
For now, he’s done his part and more in rejuvenating USC’s offense, which sputtered under Browne in the season opener against Alabama and at Stanford in the third week before Helton turned to Darnold.
After putting up 16 points total against the Crimson Tide and Cardinal, the Trojans have scored at least 20 points in each of the four games with Darnold under center. The redshirt freshman has made plays with his legs and arm, scrambling to gain yards when the play breaks down and improvising on the fly.
On Saturday, he kept a drive alive in the first half with several third down runs, escaping the pocket and diving for the sticks.
“It makes it a different ball game,” Helton said. “When you have the weapons outside, you pick your poison about who you’re going to defend. We went 7-of-13 on third downs. They were not all passes. Some of it was [Darnold] pulling it down, making it with his legs.”
Helton also praised how Darnold kept open the option for a pass, even when scrambling from pressure.
“You’re not seeing a lot of forced throws by him,” Helton said. “He’s finding the open receivers and his eyes stay downfield, even when he’s running out of the pocket. That’s what you want from a quarterback. He’s getting first downs with his legs, but he’s also creating plays downfield with his arms when things break down.”
Perhaps the happiest camper with the quarterback switch is Smith-Schuster, who has seen a dramatic uptick in receptions and targets with Darnold flinging passes his way.
“It’s so fun,” the junior wide receiver said on playing with Darnold. “You don’t know what he’s going to do. He’s able to throw the ball across his body. He’s also able to throw the ball like a spiral — super fast.”
Three of those spirals resulted in scores on Saturday — the first was on a screen play from three yards out, the second was a short pass that Smith-Schuster turned into a spectacular, tackle-breaking touchdown and the third was a leaping grab in the second half for a 46-yard touchdown, a throw that Darnold placed perfectly for Smith-Schuster to jump up and snag over the defender.
“There’s a lot of times I can fit a ball in there and find a window,” Darnold said on throwing to Smith-Schuster. “He’s an every-down receiver and someone who can block on the perimeter as well. He’s a huge asset and someone we’d like to have back moving forward.”
Smith-Schuster said that since Darnold was named the starter, the two have kicked off a special connection.
“We hang out together,” he said. “We’re like frat boys, loving one another. You have to trust somebody with everything that you have, everything that you got. I feel like he has to do the same thing, and it makes [football] a lot easier.”
Smith-Schuster said spending time outside of football with Darnold helps develop their relationship on the field.
“It’s an official bromance,” Smith-Schuster said. “Use that. Don’t tell him, though.”
The “bromance,” though, can include tough love. On the practice field, the two call each other out on mistakes.
“I’ll say, ‘Dude, that’s a bad ball,’” Smith-Schuster said. “I’m going to call him out. That’s what grown men do. You’ve got to own up to your mistakes. He does the same thing to me.”
Darnold has only been in the spotlight for a couple of weeks, but his humble, soft-spoken demeanor has stood out, as has his desire to improve week-by-week. Last week against Colorado, USC committed four turnovers, with Darnold fumbling twice and throwing an interception. On Saturday, it was a marked improvement — zero turnovers, with the ball staying firmly tucked in on every scramble.
“It was a huge emphasis this week in practice, taking care of the ball,” Darnold said. “It was on my mind the whole game. I just didn’t want to turn the ball over.”
For the next game against Cal, it will be likely be connecting more on deep throws. Given the extra week to prepare and Cal’s struggles on defense, the Bears would be advised to look out.
“I’m just going week-by-week,” Darnold said. “If I progress, I progress, but I think that’s a part of growing mentally and physically.”
The more Darnold speaks, the more he comes across as a redshirt freshman with the maturity of a true veteran, which is music to Helton’s ears.
“That’s what you want from your leaders,” Helton said. “He’s like his coaches. He’s a perfectionist. He’d be a great coach one day. He’s one of those guys that expects perfection and demands it of himself as well as his teammates, and that’s important.”