The mood was somber on the night of Sept. 23, 2016. USC had fallen to 1-3 for the first time since 2001 after a heartbreaking defeat in Utah. It was pouring rain on a dreary evening at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City, and we were crowded in a closet-sized room for the postgame press conference, waiting to hear what Sam Darnold, a redshirt freshman who had just made his first career start at quarterback, had to say.
I felt bad for him, as his 6-foot, 4-inch, 220-pound frame squeezed into that tiny room along with head coach Clay Helton and linebacker Cam Smith, in front of all the cameras. This relatively unknown, quiet kid, thrust into the spotlight as the face of what could be the worst USC team in 15 years, could be in for a long season.
I don’t remember much from that press conference. Darnold, as we would become familiar with, kept it cool and did not look flustered for a 19-year-old making his first career start. I didn’t even quote him in the recap I went on to write.
At the time, it was hard to be positive. Darnold had made some good throws and given his team a chance to win on the road. But the season was destined for a tailspin. This team had lost by 46 to Alabama in the opener and was completely outmatched at Stanford, after which players called each other out for quitting at halftime. Zach Banner, a team captain, declined to speak with the media, and star cornerback Adoree’ Jackson proclaimed that losing was unacceptable, because he didn’t come from a losing program in high school and wasn’t used to this. Helton was very much on the hot seat.
His solution — and likely, his job — depended on this redshirt freshman from San Clemente, a last-ditch effort to salvage the season. If it seemed like desperation, it was desperation.
But then Darnold won his next start. And the next one. And the next 12 after that, highlighted by a Rose Bowl performance for the ages. He sparked the team, probably saved Helton’s job and set up the program for sustained success even as he leaves for the NFL.
Which is where we are at on Thursday: Darnold will be drafted onto an NFL team today, and no matter where that franchise is, he will likely have to repeat what he did at USC. The bad thing about being really good in college is that you will probably get stuck on an awful NFL team (or even worse, in Cleveland). Darnold will have to make do with a bleak situation. He will have to probably save another head coach’s or GM’s job. He will be faced with the pressure of not ending up a bust. All of this — and he doesn’t turn 21 until June.
I’ve covered all of Darnold’s games at USC. I’ve seen him grow into a star — and man, were there cool moments. I’ll never forget when he quieted 72,364 screaming fans at Husky Stadium in Washington — the loudest I’ve ever heard a football stadium — and upset the No. 4 Huskies with some elite throws. There was the game-saving jump pass he made last year to Stephen Carr against Texas in the triple-overtime thriller. And, of course, I still have no idea how he fit that ball into Deontay Burnett’s hands to tie the Rose Bowl.
Darnold’s career will ultimately be judged by how he fares in the NFL, by whether he turns into a franchise quarterback and lives up to the hype. But I hope we don’t forget his roots and his meteoric rise to the top. I think back to that dreary night in Utah two years ago and I now feel fortunate to have been there. Because that was the start of a legendary collegiate career, and — we’re hoping — so much more to come.
Eric He is a junior majoring in print and digital journalism. His column, “Grinding Gears,” ran Thursdays.