Skip to main content

Quarterbacks Sam Darnold, Justin Herbert are the Future of Pac-12 Football

Sam Darnold

Sam Darnold

LOS ANGELES — The last two Pac-12 programs to produce Heisman Trophy winners, Oregon and USC, may have the conference's contenders of the future in quarterbacks Justin Herbert and Sam Darnold. 

Image placeholder title

Though the two first-year players have ceilings that could put them in league with predecessors like Marcus Mariota and Matt Leinart, both Herbert and Darnold deviate from the mold of their respective programs. Squaring off against each other's teams Saturday, Darnold showed off the mobility that has helped transform the USC offense, rushing for 23 yards on five carries, to complement a 309-yard passing game.

Darnold's ability to make plays with his legs would look right at home with Oregon.

Similarly, the 6-foot-6 Herbert has the prototypical body type that attracts interest from NFL scouts. He stands tall and confidently in the pocket, delivering hard-thrown passes of varying range. He's the kind of playmaker traditionally seen donning cardinal-and-gold.

Despite the role reversal, both freshmen have bright futures with their respective programs, and that was on display this past Saturday in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

"When you’ve got a young quarterback, they usually lock in on one guy," USC head coach Clay Helton said. "[With Darnold] you look up, and he’s hit nine different receivers and really taken advantage of what the defense is giving him."

Nine was indeed the magic number for Darnold in a 45-20 win over Oregon. The Ducks came out against USC, surging in the six weeks since Darnold became the starter, showing the Trojans cloud coverages. The redshirt freshman responded with surgical precision, attacking on mid-range routes to the slot receivers and tight ends.

With Oregon draping coverage around USC star wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, Darnold utilized Deontay Burnett as his primary weapon.

"We follow our quarterback," Burnett said. "Whatever our quarterback does, we have to respond to that."

The response to Darnold has been emphatic. USC is on a five-game winning streak, scoring an average of 41.4 points per game. Darnold's distributed touchdown passes to receivers Burnett, Smith-Schuster and Darreus Rogers; tight ends Tyler Petite, Taylor McNamara and Daniel Imatorbhebhe; and running back Ronald Jones II.

"Sam is a tremendous talent," Burnett said. "He’s very good at what he does. Scrambling drill helps that a lot. He has trust in us. That’s what he’s been doing the last couple games."

The true freshman Herbert has provided Oregon's offense with a similar dynamic, spreading the ball out among a diverse corps of Duck pass catchers. Tight end Pharaoh Brown was on the receiving end of a scoring strike Saturday; he's one of six Ducks with a touchdown catch since Herbert replaced Dakota Prukop as the starting quarterback in Week 6.

Herbert's game-day performance is the manifestation of hard work during the week, Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich explained.

"The biggest thing for a quarterback is practice, and being a great practice player," Helfrich said. "That gets your game plan right, first of all, and then it spreads confidence within your team."

Helfrich praised Herbert as a consummate leader in practices, a theme that Helton said applies to Darnold, as well.

"He’s an ultimate student of the game," Helton said of Darnold.

Their mutual desire to improve in film session and on the practice will be a theme this coming week. Darnold readies for the biggest game of his young career, a trek to face No. 4 Washington on the road.

The Trojans can play spoiler for the undefeated Huskies, and dramatically shake up the College Football Playoff race. USC needs to play a clean game, which means Darnold avoiding an interception like the one he threw into triple-coverage against Oregon.

"That's part of the growth: seeing things happen before they happen," Darnold said, when conversation after Saturday's game turned to the lone blemish on an otherwise impressive stat line.

That talk after a 25-point win focused on an interception underscores Helfrich's point about the reality of playing quarterback. After all, his freshman signal-caller ended up on the other end of that equation.

"He’ll take this hard, and obviously take way too much of the blame," Helfrich said. "That is his job...Then, he'll move forward."

Helton expressed similar sentiment about Darnold.

"There’s going to be some growing pains and some lessons learned," he said. "The great thing about Sam, he learns from those lessons."

As Herbert aims to lead Oregon on a winning streak to close the season, which the Ducks need to preserve their postseason hopes, and as Darnold looks to guide the Trojans to a Pac-12 South divisional title, one might forget both are in the beginning phases of their college football careers.

Their paths crossed last week in Los Angeles; they could cross again in New York in the not-too-distant future.

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Kensing is publisher of Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.