- UCLA's Josh Rosen was the can't-miss quarterback prospect in Los Angeles until USC's Sam Darnold took that title away from him last year. Their renewed battle is one of the top storylines of 2017.
This story originally appeared on FOXSports.com.
LOS ANGELES — On a recent afternoon, USC coach Clay Helton walked over to his office computer and loaded up a clip from the Trojans’ Jan. 2 Rose Bowl win over Penn State. Breakout star Sam Darnold had thrown his fifth touchdown, a 27-yard strike to Deontay Burnett with 1:20 left to narrow the deficit to 49–48.
Whereas most players would be celebrating, Darnold calmly looked to Helton on the sideline to see whether the coach wanted to go for two.
“That’s who the kid is,” Helton said recently. “He has not changed one ounce since I first met him at San Clemente High School.”
But Darnold’s life has changed considerably in the span of a few months. The guy who started his redshirt freshman season as a backup to the now-departed Max Browne is suddenly the Vegas favorite to win the 2017 Heisman. After 10 college starts he’s garnering buzz as the top quarterback prospect in the 2018 draft.
“It’s awesome,” Darnold said of his newfound fame, “but you’ve still got to go out there and play.”
Across town at UCLA, life has changed considerably for another touted quarterback—in less fortunate fashion. Josh Rosen, the former five-star recruit who has started from his first game on campus, returned to practice last week for the first time since a shoulder injury ended his 2016 season after six games.
While Darnold and the Trojans rolled to nine straight victories and a No. 3 AP ranking, the Bruins lost six of their last seven to finish 4–8 last season. In a year’s time, Rosen went from first team freshman All-American to second team in his own city. He insists it doesn’t bother him.
“No, because everyone knows how good they are and they have that, sort of, internal scoreboard,” the Manhattan Beach native said. “I know where I’m at.”
In a city built on entertainment and competition, the story of Darnold vs. Rosen figures to hover over the 2017 college football season in Los Angeles. As the joke goes, Rams No. 1 pick Jared Goff may be the third-best quarterback in town. (And that’s before Chargers star Philip Rivers’ arrival pushes him to fourth.)
Because long before the 6’4”, 225-pound Darnold started garnering No. 1 draft pick discussion, Rosen (6’4”, 220) was being anointed the 2018 draft darling.
“He’s got to take that great physical talent and see how far he can take it,” new UCLA offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Jedd Fisch said. “He’s got all the potential in the world to be as good as he wants to be.”
Rosen appears back on track following his mystery-cloaked setback. In an Oct. 8 loss to Arizona State, Rosen suffered what would later be diagnosed as a soft tissue injury to his right shoulder. Fears of something more serious began percolating when coach Jim Mora mistakenly referred to it as a nerve issue initially, and because a stubborn Rosen spent a month trying to return on his own before finally undergoing surgery.
After watching Rosen throw during UCLA’s first spring practice Tuesday, Mora said it “did not look like there’s anything bothering him. Looked normal.” For his part, Rosen said he’d only returned to full speed just a few weeks earlier.
“Honestly, it’s turned into a positive, because I’ve learned more than I could have imagined about my body through the rehab process,” he said. “… It gives you a little bit of a fire, because in college you’re going 46, 47, 48 weeks out of the year—you don’t know what you have until you don’t have it.”
While Rosen was striving to return to 100% health-wise, Darnold’s been focused on his own high percentage throughout USC’s nearly completed spring camp.
“I wanted to have a better completion percentage [in practice],” the Orange County native said. “I wanted to get up to around 90 or 95%.”
Yes, he meant 90–95% against actual Trojans’ defenders. “Right now I’m around 85 [percent],” he said.
“I set high standards for myself. I think that I can play at the highest level and I always expect that for myself,” he said. “… I’m confident, but I’m also not outwardly arrogant, I don’t think.”
Rosen, who has raised eyebrows in the past with his provocative tweets and outspoken opinions about NCAA amateurism, fully admits to his arrogance. The story is well known by now that his dream school, Stanford, declined to offer a scholarship after witnessing his cocksure demeanor during a camp he attended there in 2013.
He doesn’t bite, however, when asked about personal goals like the Heisman or the NFL.
“My motto this year is kind of just get 1% better every day, and compound interest that, and at the end of the road you find yourself a lot further ahead than you really thought you would have been,” Rosen said.
Ultimately, which quarterback has the better season this fall will depend in large part on the development of their respective supporting casts.
Darnold, who completed 67.2% of his throws for 3,086 yards and 31 touchdowns last season, relied heavily on now-departed receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster (70 catches for 914 yards) and Darreus Rogers (56 for 696).
“It was huge for me,” said Darnold. “Being my first season actually playing, having guys like JuJu and Darreus always there to correct me or always make me look good.”
Helton said flat-out that Darnold’s ability to develop chemistry with USC’s younger receivers “will dictate our season.“ Beyond veteran Deontay Burnett, potential pass-catchers include sophomore Michael Pittman Jr. and redshirt freshmen Tyler Vaughns and Velus Jones.
For Rosen to further elevate his productivity—to this point he’s completed 59.7% of his passes for 33 touchdowns and 16 interceptions—he’ll need the Bruins to find some semblance of a running game. UCLA averaged just 2.9 yards per rushing attempt last season, plummeting to 127th out of 128 FBS teams. With no balance, Rosen took nearly as many sacks in six games (13) as he did in a full season in 2015 (15).
Fisch’s pro-style schemes are not considered to be radically different than those Mora employed a year ago, but UCLA’s offensive staff got a near-complete makeover. That includes the return of former Bruins star DeShaun Foster as running backs coach.
USC will spend 2017 taking aim at a national championship; UCLA will be trying to engineer a big enough turnaround to save Mora’s job. But most good Hollywood stories require a couple of A-list stars. For one season at least, the Trojans’ and Bruins’ quarterbacks will happily embrace those roles.