It wasn’t how they drew it up.
Sam Darnold was hurrying after the football in the backfield. The handoff with running back Justin Davis had been botched, and so the ball tumbled onto the Coliseum grass. Before it could be swallowed up by a Colorado defensive lineman, Darnold scooped it up, then retreated almost 20 yards in an attempt to escape the pass rush.
Although he was in only his third start under center for USC, Darnold looked unhurried. After he had backpedaled, he kept staring downfield. He eyed one opening. Tyler Petite, a tight end, was standing alone on the far sideline, around the 10-yard line.
Petite caught a pass from the scrambling quarterback, romped down the sideline and crossed the goal line.
The crowd roared on the sunny October afternoon. On the Pac-12 Networks telecast, 13 seconds passed until the broadcasters uttered a word as if they were left trying to process the sequence.
The circuitous touchdown toss proved to be a sort of trademark for Darnold in his debut season last fall: unscripted and unflinching.
Afterward, USC coach Clay Helton was asked how he could instruct such a young quarterback to deliver such a throw. It was simple. Keep the reins off. Let the redshirt freshman go. “Like I told him,” Helton said, “drive it like you stole it.”
Darnold kept driving. Three months later, in a wild comeback over Penn State in the Rose Bowl, Darnold threw the game-tying touchdown on a 27-yard pass to Deontay Burnett when he eyed the slot receiver ditching his route halfway through. Instead of a short comeback, Burnett dove toward the end zone. Darnold, noticing the adjustment, dropped a pass between three defensive backs.
The gumption pushed the Trojans toward their best season in almost a decade, since the Pete Carroll era, and Darnold’s return represents the promise of a continued march to recapture past glory.
After Darnold replaced Max Browne following USC’s 1–2 start, he led a nine-game winning streak to close the season, shattering the program’s prominent freshman passing records along the way. Overnight, the program’s fortunes changed.
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To understand Darnold’s freewheeling, instinctive style, it would be instructive to return to a decision made by Jaime Ortiz, the varsity football coach at San Clemente (Calif.) High, prior to the 2012 season.
Ortiz had a quarterback quandary. There were two options as he looked to replace Utah-bound Travis Wilson: Darnold, a sophomore who had quarterbacked the freshman team the year prior, and Sean Donnelly, a steady senior who was Wilson’s backup. With a tight race, Ortiz used one tiebreaker — Darnold’s athleticism.
“Unfortunately at that time in our program, we needed athletes,” he says.
So, out of necessity, Darnold became a wide receiver and outside linebacker, playing both ways. Donnelly started at quarterback.
“We felt, hey, this gives our quarterback one more guy to throw to,” Ortiz says. “Our best offense would have been Sam throwing to Sam, but unfortunately that’s not really possible.”
Darnold didn’t start at quarterback until a season-ending injury to Donnelly later that fall, but the snaps elsewhere on the field provided a training ground. They prepared him to get hit. It’s why he looks at ease in the pocket, comfortable sidestepping edge rushers or scrambling for a first down. He was prepped beyond the protected space of a pocket.
Coaches and analysts often remark about the natural feel he has once he takes the snap.
In one of USC’s spring practices in April, Darnold dodged a defensive end, took a couple steps to his left and side-armed a throw between two defenders, zipping the pass for a touchdown.
“I’ve always thought he’s got a little bit of [Brett] Favre in him, to be honest with you,” Helton says in reference to the former Green Bay Packers quarterback. “His creativity, his arm, his core strength to be able to make a throw, shuffling to your left and have that kind of arm angle.”
As he gushes, Helton pauses for caution. “Brett was a great quarterback,” he adds.
“Not to say Sam’s at that level yet, but he has those types of attributes.”
Darnold also developed on the basketball courts in Orange County. Rather than participate in 7-on-7 passing tournaments during the winter months, a path often taken by the top-ranked prep quarterbacks, Darnold played on the varsity basketball team for San Clemente. He was twice named league MVP.
Sam comes from a family of college athletes. He is the son of a football player and a volleyball player. His older sister, Franki, became an all-conference outside hitter at Rhode Island. His grandfather, Dick Hammer, was on USC basketball’s only Final Four team, in 1954.
For Sam, his vision and quick instincts trace to hoops.
“His ability to see the floor directly translates to his ability to see the field,” says Marc Popovich, the Tritons’ boys basketball coach. “He would throw guys open in basketball just like he throws guys open in football.”
Even then, he carried a knack for uncovering openings. “The thing that separates him from other guys is his ability to improvise, his ability to see those big plays potentially,” Popovich adds, “to be able to take advantage of those when they’re there.” A sixth sense.
USC’s quarterback shakeup began on the team’s return flight from Stanford last season. In two high-profile games against Alabama and Stanford, the Trojans mustered only one offensive touchdown. A spark was needed, Helton reasoned as he mulled the switch.
On Sunday, the day after they returned home, Helton met with the two quarterbacks in his office. It was Darnold’s turn.
But, with a Friday night game at Utah looming, there was a tight turnaround between the two conference road games.
“I had a lot of adrenaline throughout the week,” Darnold says.
The Trojans went to Salt Lake City, where ultimately they lost to the Utes, 31–27, after giving up a game-winning touchdown in the waning seconds. But Darnold’s teammates and coaches left impressed with his demeanor. He was unflappable in his first start, completing 18 of his 26 passes for 253 yards and running for a touchdown.
“You see it on his face,” says Tyson Helton, the quarterbacks coach and Clay’s younger brother. “He doesn’t get rattled.”
Darnold has an unassuming demeanor. His voice does not carry throughout Howard Jones Field, where the Trojans practice. He is quiet and soft spoken. He remains stoic, with a quiet confidence.
Teammates say they like his poise and leadership, a cool-headed approach that rubs off on them.
He has a personal touch, too. Near the end of a spring practice in March, he lingered on the field with Daniel Imatorbhebhe, a sophomore tight end and one of his roommates. Darnold was demonstrating how to get a jump off his route at the line of scrimmage.
“One of the great things Sam does is he can be a great one-on-one leader, to pull a guy aside and communicate with him,” Clay Helton says. “He does that as good as anybody I’ve seen. And then he picks and chooses his time. He’s not one of those guys you’re going to hear the entire camp or the entire day. He’s one of those guys, when he speaks, everyone listens.”
The night the Trojans won the Rose Bowl over Penn State, Ortiz shot a text message to Darnold. “For all intents and purposes,” he wrote, “your life is completely changed from this point forward.”
In a way, that has proven to be true.
Los Angeles has celebrated the Trojans’ turnaround. Darnold and teammates were introduced and given standing ovations at Lakers and Kings home games at the Staples Center. They paid a visit to the city council, which honored them. No one on campus is more recognizable than the red-haired, 6'4" quarterback.
Darnold shrugs at his expanding profile, but he understands the reality of the growing acclaim and expectations in the nation’s second-largest city.
“To an extent you got to block it out,” Darnold says, “but at the same time, you should try to embrace it. It’s good to embrace things like that. But also know that if you’re ranked that high … people are going to be coming for you. Every single day, they’re going to bring their best game. That’s the mindset we have to have.”
Darnold recalls his upbringing as blue collar. He grew up in Capistrano Beach, Calif., a beach town tucked along the Pacific coast more than 60 miles south of USC’s downtown campus. His father, Mike, is a plumber and contractor who worked late hours. Sam remembers his dad at times arising as early as 2 a.m. to fix broken pipes in the nearby Orange County hospitals. His mother, Chris, is a middle school physical education teacher. They kept him levelheaded.
Thirteen years ago, he sat in the stands at the Coliseum, watching the Trojans’ dominance.
“In a way, it’s kind of a role reversal,” Ortiz says. “Sam has grown up a giant Matt Leinart fan, Reggie Bush fan, Pete Carroll fan, and now he’s in those shoes.”
Darnold, in fact, had a No. 11 jersey for Leinart, who in 2004 won the Heisman Trophy, becoming the school’s second signal caller to do so, and led USC to a national championship.
Fans’ hopes now rest with Darnold, as they long for the next breathtaking play.
Written by Joey Kaufman (@JoeyRKaufman) of OCRegister.com for Athlon Sports. This article appeared in Athlon Sports' 2017 Pac-12 Football Preview Editions. Visit our online store to order your copy to get more in-depth analysis on the 2017 season.