When all is said and done, Sam Darnold may be the best quarterback in USC history.
Like others, he may well go on to lead the Trojans to a National Championship — picking up the Heisman along the way. Like most, he’ll probably be a top NFL draft pick. But Darnold isn’t your typical USC passer.
He may walk, talk like, even look like some of those that have gone before him. But he doesn’t play like them.
Darnold is a baller. There’s no other way to describe his swashbuckling style. He is a playmaker who, at times, is an offense unto himself. He makes those around him better and finds ways to extend drives, be it with his arm or legs.
In that way, he differs from your classical USC quarterback. Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart, Mark Sanchez, Matt Barkley and Cody Kessler had their strengths and weaknesses. But they were essentially cut from the same cloth.
All were rhythm based quarterbacks. Drop, scan the field, hit the back foot and get the ball out. Some, like Palmer, had elite physical traits that allowed them to indulge in a bombs away approach, but still played the structure of the offense.
That’s not Darnold. Whereas the others were classical musicians, he’s a jazz artist. He plays to his own beat.
Sure, there’s plenty of structure with USC’s system: All manner of bubble screens and pop screens, RPOs and bootlegs. But he’s at his best outside of that structure. When things break down, he’s just able to play ball.
“You look at USC QBs before him, you see guys who were dead serious, every drive of the utmost importance,” former USC quarterback Max Browne, now at Pitt, told Lee Jenkins of Sports Illustrated before the season. “Sam’s out there flinging the ball around like he’s back in recess at elementary school, playing catch with his friends.”
Darnold makes the tough look simple. And sometimes he makes the simple look tough. But through three games this season, he’s proven that those intangibles and on-the-move skills that made him an electric viewing experience, the preseason Heisman favorite and the early favorite to be No. 1 overall pick in next year’s draft, were not a mirage. They were a part of his QB DNA. He’s a gamer. A baller.
Darnold likes playing outside of the system. When things break down he comes alive. He has the ability to avoid defenders, extend plays and keep his eyes fixed downfield, making him the ultimate dual-threat.
This is Darnold at his best:
It’s a magic play. And it came effortlessly. He rolled to his right, showing no fear as a Stanford pass rusher careened towards him. With the defender beating down, he took another pair of smaller steps in order to give his receiver time to bend closer toward the goal line and to set up for the throw. Then, perfection. He unfurled a special throw, putting it in a spot where only his man could get it, and score a touchdown.
Many analysts and evaluators will evoke Brett Favre: The classic gunslinger who roamed around and launched the ball all over the field, system be damned. But in many ways, he reminds me of Tony Romo, who displayed far more nuance as an off-script player.
He never seems to panic. He makes mistakes, sure. But he seems in control, as if the game slows down for him as it becomes more frenetic for everyone else.
Darnold’s off-script plays have their drawback. He refuses to give up on plays. He doesn’t know when they’re dead. Sometimes you have to take a page out of the Peyton Manning handbook: Swallow the ball and live to play another down.
Despite his raw talent, people sometimes forget he has only made 13 career starts at USC. Darnold is in the early stage of his quarterback development. He tends to force the issue on plays where there’s no need:
Learning to eat a play and not trying to win the game with every throw should come with experience. Coach Clay Helton and the Trojans hope sooner than later.
Playmaking doesn’t just come outside the pocket, though. Being able to throw with touch and anticipation is every bit the work of a playmaker as a Manzelian run criss-crossing the field. Don’t just hit receivers in their hands, give them a chance to create after the catch.
Darnold has the gene. Many in college don’t.
Collegiate quarterbacks often fall victim to power throwing. They do not mix up their trajectories or velocity. They rely on altering the rhythm of their drop to buy time, and they drive almost all throws. The infamous “bucket” throw — dropping a ball over the top of linebackers and in front of defensive backs — eludes them.
For a quarterback who didn’t win the starting job out of USC camp last fall, Darnold is surprisingly far along on some of the subtleties required to be an elite-level passer from within the pocket — moving defenders with his eyes, modulating his velocities and throwing receivers open, even when they’re covered.
It doesn’t get better than this: Watch as Darnold flashes his eyes to the field side. By doing so, he forces the boundary safety to pause on the near hash. As the quarterback works back to a near side receiver running a corner route, the safety is unable to give help to his cornerback, who’s looking to take away any underneath throw.
Darnold dropped the ball over the top of the cornerback to a spot where the safety didn’t have time to recover. He couldn’t have walked to the end zone and handed the receiver a better ball.
In three games this season, he has shown he can deliver accurate throws to all levels, throwing with anticipation and touch.
Darnold is a fun player. He’s a quarterback you can win games with. And he’s one who can elevate a good team into a championship-level one. But he’s far from flawless.
The elephant in the room is his delivery. We will get to his lower body mechanics later. But the chatter among opposing coaches, media critics and NFL evaluators centers on Darnold’s elongated motion.
It’s a funky, long and winding motion. You won’t find it in a Bill Walsh quarterback manual any time soon.
It takes a long time for him to load up and fire, with the ball dropping down by his waist:
I am, however, wary of changing up a delivery. I certainly don’t think it’s something that should be changed in-season unless it has reached critical levels. Darnold’s has not.
For one, I’m not sure motion makeovers work. Once the bullets start flying players tend to revert back to muscle memory. They play street ball. They don’t think about fundamental mechanics. They scan for whose open, and they keep their eyes and ears out for pass rushers that may be bearing down on them.
Tim Tebow. Blake Bortles. The list goes on and on of quarterbacks who’ve spent hundreds of hours working with designated throwing coaches. But once they’re in games, and the pocket begins to collapse, they revert back to what they know best — that ol’ elongated motion.
Breaking down a player’s throwing habits and building them back up is a multi-year process.
Aaron Rodgers is the best example. He had a kooky release in college. The Green Bay Packers took three years to break it down and introduce one of the snappiest releases in football — one that quarterbacks at the high school level now spend thousands of dollars on private quarterback coaches trying to emulate. A change of that magnitude takes a long time and lots of reps.
If you’re an outcome oriented person, you likely don’t care how Darnold releases the ball. If you’re process oriented, the earlier example probably gives you goosebumps.
There’s a split in the scouting community.
The old-school mentality is an elongated motion gives defenders an extra beat to read and jump on a play.
Now, coaches quibble over whether an elongated delivery is a big deal. Many subscribe to the theory that arm power can overcome the issue, focusing on the so-called “load-to-arrival” time — the marriage between the quickness of the release and the velocity of the throw.
There’s no doubt that Helton and the USC staff will want to clean up Darnold’s release. You can get away without having the crispest release in a pace-and-space system, but it’s tougher to conceal on rhythm passing concepts, something the Trojans are going to need if they’re to achieve their goals this season.
Darnold himself will likely want to clean it up — if only to dispel the chatter once draft season rolls around. As it stands, Darnold’s delivery is fine. He makes up for it with raw arm talent. Besides, he has other mechanical issues to iron out in the short term.
The first three games of this season have proven one thing: Darnold is just as likely to lead USC to a championship as he is to throw one away.
It comes down to consistency: The consistency of his lower body mechanics, and his decision making.
His footwork isn’t just sloppy, often it’s a mess.
Throwing with rhythm is essential for modern quarterbacks, regardless of the offensive system. Their footwork must align with receivers’ routes. It’s not as simple as taking a three- or five-step drop. Is it one big step and two small steps or two big and one small? It depends on the route combination and the necessary timing of the pattern.
Darnold’s footwork is often choppy and heavy, like a baby giraffe just figuring out how to walk. His movements aren’t sudden. He just kind of floats his legs around and figures the rest out later. Sometimes he’s forced to hop into a delivery, because he hasn’t hit his landmark in time to deliver a throw. His base suffers. His power suffers. His accuracy suffers.
There have been subtle signs of improvement this season. At times, we’re treated to classic USC quarterback play: Nimble footwork from the giant navigating the pocket, with Darnold planting and firing on time. But plays like the clean one below fall between an ungodly amount of muddiness.
His base is another issue unto itself: He often sets too wide, leading throws to die on him or float away from the intended target.
Darnold has an excellent arm. But he doesn’t create enough natural zip on the ball to get away with being an arm thrower. He needs his base to generate the explosive velocity that makes him such a devastating passer at the intermediate level.
Some of this is arm arrogance. He knows he can fit balls into tight windows, so he’s willing to let it fly. Indeed, he can make any throw to any spot on the field. But this isn’t Palmer, without a set base he doesn’t have the zip to squeeze the ball into tight coverage.
It rears its head when he’s forced to adjust from his initial read and has to reset his feet.
This throw against Stanford is as ugly as it gets:
It’s a baffling throw. In his eagerness to get the ball downfield, he releases the ball on one foot, leaning his body weight toward the sideline.
The effect may seem small, but it’s crucial. It’s as though he forgets to recalibrate where he is on the field and what he needs to do as a result. The thought is right, but his body betrays him.
It’s not often that you see a quarterback with Darnold’s build (6-foot-4, 230 pounds), who’s capable of seeing over the line and creating his own throwing lane, opting to lean away from a throw and delivering it from his back foot, rather than climbing into a clean pocket:
There is, however, a minor benefit. His lack of consistency has given him ample opportunities to throw from all kinds of platforms and arm angles.
At top schools, QBs can often go through a stretch of games where they sit behind excellent protection and only have to throw from odd body positions a couple of times a game. Darnold must be challenging himself.
He’s shown he can whip it as long as he’s set, regardless of whether he’s flat-footed or forced to throw side arm.
That preparation comes in handy when does face pressure, particularly against the blitz. When Darnold’s protection breaks down and he needs to get the ball to his target, he’s proven adept at throwing from tricky platforms.
His footwork issues are something that can be chalked up as coachable — as long as there’s the effort to improve. His decision making issues are not.
Some of Darnold’s poor decisions are born from a sample size of game experience. Others are unfathomable (without fathom!).
Combining inconsistent mechanics with sloppy decisions is a recipe for turnovers. He has 6 interceptions through three games this season, putting him on pace to match his season total of a year ago (9) before we hit October.
Improving his lower body mechanics will give him a wider margin of error when he’s taking shots downfield, the type of chances that have burned him early this season.
If he can find more consistency, while sprinkling in the magic dust at the proper times, we’ll be looking at something special.
“He has a chance to be the best USC has ever seen,” Sean Salisbury, the NFL analyst and former Southern Cal quarterback, told Bleacher Report prior to the season. “He’s that good.
That opportunity rests on him improving the intricate parts of the position that, while monotonous, will make him a quality rhythm passer, to go with his natural playmaking and penchant for coming through in the biggest moments.
That’s what makes Darnold such a unique study. He confounds with poor mechanics, while at the same time displaying the moxie, leadership and poise of a 10-year NFL veteran. He frustrates with silly decisions that leads to turnovers, while at the same time having the gift of effortlessly orchestrating game-winning drives.
No, Darnold is not your typical risk-averse USC quarterback who plays within a pro-style system. His game is more diverse, and less predictable. It’s precisely why he has Heisman voters and NFL evaluators salivating.