The text message showed up on Sam Darnold’s phone last December on the night Alabama’s Derrick Henry won the Heisman Trophy.
“Save me a seat when you go for the Heisman ceremony. You’ll be on that stage one day.”
Darnold’s high school coach, Jaime Ortiz, had sent the text to a redshirt freshman who had yet to take a snap in a college football game and sat behind Max Browne on the depth chart.
Rick Scuteri/Associated Press/Associated Press
Browne was the QB-in-waiting at USC, the top-rated player at his position in 2012 and winner of the Gatorade National Player of the Year as a high school senior when he threw for 4,526 yards and 49 touchdowns. Adam Gorney, national recruiting analyst for Rivals.com, told Bleacher Report this past week that Browne was one of the best quarterback prospects he’d ever scouted.
But after being handed the starting job in Week 4, it’s been Darnold that has led USC’s resurgence back into prominence as the centerpiece of a five-game winning streak.
There weren’t many who thought Darnold would have his chance this early. After all, Browne had spent two years behind Cody Kessler. No coach in Clay Helton’s position—getting the interim tag removed late last season—could risk the potential public relations fallout from inserting anyone other than what was assumed to be the next golden-boy QB for the Trojans.
Darnold still challenged for the job this preseason. Browne was named the starter 14 days before the opener against Alabama. But after the Trojans limped to a 1-2 start and scored only one touchdown in losses to Alabama and Stanford, the tables turned on Browne. A quarterback switch was a shake-up worth trying for Helton.
That decision, at least six games in, looks like it could be historic in the rebuilding of USC as a college football giant. The Trojans are 5-1 since Darnold took over, and they’re not just winning. They’re running up scores similar to the days when Matt Leinart was under center.
|at No. 16 Utah||L, 31-27|
|vs. Arizona State||W, 41-20|
|vs. No. 15 Colorado||W, 21-17|
|at Arizona||W, 48-14|
|vs. California||W, 45-24|
Darnold is averaging 289.7 yards per game, completing 68.4 percent of his passes and has thrown 18 touchdowns to just three interception in his six games as a starter. His 18 touchdowns have all come in the last five games, which is the third-most among Power Five quarterbacks during that time. His QB rating against Power Five opponents (165.68) ranks fourth nationally, and he’s the only freshman in the top 30 of that list.
In Darnold, the Trojans have the rare pocket passer who can also moonlight as a dual-threat quarterback. At 6’4” and 225 pounds, Darnold has shown the ability to make all the throws and do so under pressure. When blitzed this season, Darnold has completed 52 of 76 passes for 708 yards, 11 touchdowns and two interceptions, according to Pro Football Focus (via Pac-12.com).
“They’re expecting a freshman quarterback to make a mistake and with me knowing that, I think it helps my cause,” Darnold said.
Darnold brings some athleticism to the table, which was a big selling point during his recruitment. Darnold was an All-League MVP in basketball at San Clemente High School. Since he missed most of his junior season in football because of a broken foot, there was not much film of him playing quarterback to send to college coaches, so Ortiz included clips of him playing hoops in his highlight packages.
USC’s first interest in Darnold was as an outside linebacker, and there are moments in the open field where his past at that position is evident.
Chris Coduto/Getty Images
“He has a linebacker mentality playing quarterback,” Ortiz said.
Darnold has had to dial that back some as he’s fumbled seven times in his six starts.
“Even though he is an unbelievable competitive athlete, he’s learning how to protect himself once he breaks out of the pocket and runs with the ball past the line of scrimmage and getting down,” Helton said last week on the Pac-12 conference call. “He’s a value to us right now and starting to do that better.”
The fact that there’s a threat of the run with Darnold is the biggest difference between him and the less-mobile Browne. Darnold said the only real difference in the play-calling since he took over is that offensive coordinator Tee Martin has sprinkled in some more zone-read plays.
The big redshirt freshman is not putting up huge rushing numbers—160 yards on 35 attempts in the last six games—but when he does take off, his speed is deceptive because of his massive stature. Darnold said he’s noticed defensive linemen taking bad angles because they don’t realize he can turn on the jets.
“I think people do underestimate my ability to run, but I’m fine with it as long as stuff like that keeps happening,” Darnold said.
Darnold and Martin have also been smart in leaning on the playmakers around him. Junior receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, expected to be a first-round pick in the 2017 draft, has been much more productive with Darnold at quarterback as opposed to Browne.
|Passes from Browne||Passes from Darnold|
“Whenever I see an opportunity to get him the ball one-on-one, I take it,” Darnold said.
The USC rushing attack has also been more potent with Darnold at quarterback.
|Browne starts||Darnold starts|
|Average per game||119.7||258.0|
|Average per rush||3.6||6.5|
Ronald Jones II has run for 394 yards and five touchdowns the past two weeks. The Trojans ran for a season-high 398 yards two weeks ago against California, and that made Darnold’s job much easier. He threw the ball only 25 times—his fewest attempts in six games as starter—but he still managed to throw for 231 yards and five touchdowns to four different receivers.
“We’ve been running the ball at will and that creates one-on-one matchups outside, and I know my receivers are going to win that more than half the time,” Darnold said. “When a team thinks we’re going to run, we’re just gonna plop it right over your heads for a touchdown.”
The Trojans are administering their recent shellackings somewhat quietly. They’re still not ranked, because of their 1-3 start, although recent results (and Las Vegas) suggest they should be.
Vegas College Football Top 25 compared to Committee Rankings: pic.twitter.com/8spV71h0jI
— RJ Bell (@RJinVegas) November 5, 2016
Opportunity awaits this week when USC travels to No. 4 Washington. An upset win would not only give Helton job security, but it could offer an extra boost in recruiting. The Trojans rarely need help on that end, but imagine the ease of a sales pitch centered around the possibility of playing with a budding star like Darnold.
The state of the program is something that is important to the quarterback, as he grew up a Trojan fan in Capistrano Beach, about an hour south of USC’s campus. “I had the privilege of growing up in a great era to watch USC football,” Darnold said. “That was a huge deal for me. I always love watching USC football and it’s just awesome to be a part of it now.”
Yet when Darnold made the pledge to his dream school, there was no big formal announcement, only a tweet from Ortiz.
Darnold is not one for self-promotion, which is one reason he was not a hot name on the recruiting radar in high school. He rarely played seven-on-seven football, did not have a personal quarterback coach like many other high-profile QBs nowadays and also was hesitant to go to any camps.
“He’d rather play full-contact football,” Ortiz said.
Ortiz and his staff had to beg Darnold to attend a Nike Elite 11 camp before his senior year, and Helton has admired the way Darnold shields the limelight.
“He’s an old soul,” Helton said. “What I appreciate about him, even though he’s having this very early success, he is brutally honest with himself in that he knows he has room to grow.
“Every time that he comes out of a game, we’ve been ahead in some games and I’ve pulled him and I’ve said, ‘Hey man, great job.’ He looks at me, and says, ‘Coach, there’s more out there I can do better. I know I can do better.’ You appreciate that as a coach—just his humility, his humbleness and his maturity at this young an age.”
Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports
USC has had its share of special talents at quarterback—from Rodney Peete to Rob Johnson to Carson Palmer to Leinart to Matt Barkley. None of those had a six-game start even comparable to Darnold.
A future Heisman candidacy certainly looks like part of his future.
“Shoot, if that opportunity comes around, that’d be a dream come true,” he said. “But I’m not going to worry about that right now.”
When Ortiz sent that text last December, Darnold sent back a smiley face emoji.
That captures the mood of Helton and the USC fanbase now that they’ve found their next golden boy.
Quiet, humble and ready to lead the resurgence.
C.J. Moore covers college basketball and football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @CJMooreBR.