Career Recap: Over the past decade, college football has seen a string of freshman quarterbacks take the game by storm. Players like Johnny Manziel, Jameis Winston, Brad Kaaya and Christian Hackenberg had impressive freshman seasons that created a real buzz in the scouting community. Not all of them lived up to the hype in the years to come, but the trend will be put to the test again this year after Sam Darnold broke out in 2016 as a redshirt freshman.
Darnold was an extremely efficient passer debut season, leading the Trojans to a 10-3 record. After USC's 1-2 start to 2016, Darnold was made the starting quarterback. He lost his first start against a good Utah team, but after that, he led his team to rip off a nine-game win streak to close out the year, which included impressive wins over Colorado, Washington and a comeback Rose Bowl win over Penn State. For the year, Darnold completed 67 percent of his passes for 3,086 yards with 31 touchdowns and nine interceptions.
2017 Season Outlook: The Trojans play in one of the most talented conferences in the nation, so Darnold will see quality opponents on a weekly basis. USC's games in Week 2, against Stanford, and Week 3, against Texas, could be the harder games of the first half of the season. Midway through the year, Darnold gets another shot at Utah, the only team to beat him last year. He also will have a tough test to close out the season with rival UCLA. Hopefully, both Darnold and Bruins quarterback Josh Rosen will be healthy, as Rosen missed last year's game with an injury.
Aside from the schedule, there are significant obstacles for Darnold to overcome in his second season as a starter, especially with the loss of talent in his supporting cast. His former No. 1 wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster is in the NFL, and gadget weapon Adoree' Jackson is gone as well. The Trojans also lost multiple offensive linemen, including some edge protectors. The success of the talent replacing those players could have a huge impact on how Darnold performs this fall.
Skill-Set Summary: There is a lot to like about Darnold given what he did as a freshman. First and foremost, Darnold was an accurate passer from the pocket. He showed nice ball location and accuracy in the short to intermediate part of the field. Darnold was comfortable in the pocket, but also showed the ability to move around to buy time. While Darnold is not a running quarterback, he is functional to avoid sacks and will move around to help his offensive line and receivers. He made a number of really nice plays last year when things went off script as he got creative to move the ball for his offense.
Darnold has good size and surveys the field well. He has a strong enough arm to make the throws required and generally made good decisions in 2016 as he was very skilled at protecting the football to avoid turnovers. Darnold flashed some anticipation and timing to his throws with field vision to work through progressions.
Darnold could stand to improve in a few areas in his second season as a starter. This analyst thinks Darnold could stand to quicken his process and work through his progressions faster. He also could stand to get better at throwing deep downfield. His mechanics should get cleaned up, too. Those improvements are important Darnold has a quality arm, but lacks a cannon. He is a decent athlete whose physical skill set is not exceptional, so he will have to make up for that with his accuracy, decision-making, field vision and intelligence as a pocket passer.
There is no doubt that Darnold has a lot of moxie. He is a gamer who doesn't quit and pushed his team to wins last season. Darnold is said to have very good intangibles off the field and football character with leadership. Team sources have spoken positively about him in that regard.
Here's how one scout who has done advance work on the 2018 class talked about Darnold:
"Darnold's release has some flaws to it. He's not Aaron Rodgers or elite physical talent like he's being made out to be. I love Darnold's moxie, and he has HUGE intangibles, but he's not the physical talent Carson Palmer was coming out. I think Darnold has a good skill set, but not special. Special and elite are the same to me, and I think these terms are thrown around too randomly to help hyperbole. Sam is talented; he's just not Rodgers, Cam Newton, Michael Vick, Ben Roethlisberger or Andrew Luck in terms of physical ability. Lamar Jackson and Josh Allen have that talent. Now as far as intangibles, mental quicks, and leadership, time will tell if Sam is rare in that regard, but he could be. The truly special players have both combinations, and to just be a great NFL quarterback, you have to be rare in one regard or the other - if not both to some degree. I just don't know if Sam has gotten there yet. There have been plenty of flash-in-the-pan 1-year starters that ended up crashing and burning. The best come through maturation and proof of sustainability. Entering the year, personally, I like Allen followed by Darnold and Jackson, with the strong chance of Lamar passing Darnold because of upside."
2017 NFL Draft Expectations: Entering the 2017 season, Darnold is viewed as having "top of the draft" and franchise quarterback potential. However, big expectations don't always equal being a "top of the draft" first-rounder - as we have seen with others.
Darnold is losing significant talent around him from last year. One would think that USC has recruited well to have some quality players step in, but losing talent around a quarterback can be a catalyst for college signal-callers to have a drop in play. That could be seen when Brad Kaaya dropped off from his freshman to sophomore year after losing Duke Johnson, Philip Dorsett, Ereck Flowers and Clive Walford. At Notre Dame, DeShone Kizer played better in 2015 than he did in 2016 after losing Will Fuller, C.J. Prosise, Ronnie Stanley and Nick Martin to the NFL.
Thus, it isn't a slam-dunk that Darnold will dominate in 2017 and end up being a "top of the draft" selection. Therefore, to a degree, Darnold will have to prove himself all over again. He has a quality skill set and has a lot going for him. This analyst would predict that Darnold is more like Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota or Deshaun Watson with sustainment of success to be a first-round quarterback prospect. I think that is more likely than Darnold turning out like Christian Hackenberg or Brad Kaaya with dropoffs in play that sent them to the second and third day of NFL drafts.