The Sam Darnold Hype Train Slows Down

The USC quarterback’s flaws were on display in the Trojans’ loss at Washington State, and scouts took notice
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I have some advice for everyone following a bad team—and, as a result, all the top college quarterbacks—and it really boils down to two words: Chill out.

USC’s Sam Darnold looked like crap on Friday night at Washington State. He threw for 164 yards after crossing the 200-yard threshold in each of his first 14 starts. He fell below 60 percent completions for just the second time as a starter (he was at 57.1 percent against Texas on Sept. 16), and in Pullman was well below that mark (51.7). He didn’t throw a touchdown pass for the first time since his first start.

And the truth is, that this wasn’t just the stats. Darnold really struggled, as the Trojans’ 13-game win streak, dating back to the quarterback’s second start, was snapped.

“He has a slight hitch, a wind-up in his throw, and he does stare down receivers,” said one veteran evaluator. “He’s still learning to read defenses. This is a young kid. Not ready for primetime yet. He has the tools, but he’s too inconsistent, and the hype doesn’t help him either. Overall, he has a lot of ability but he’s just not there yet.”

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Maybe we all got ahead of ourselves last month—I’ll raise my hand on that one. Darnold is 20, and will still be 20 on the day of the 2018 NFL draft. This was the first year he’d entered the season as a collegiate starter, he lost his No. 1 receiver (now-Steeler JuJu Smith-Schuster) and three All-Pac-12 linemen (the Giants’ Chad Wheeler and Cleveland’s Zach Banner at tackle, and Chiefs practice squad guard Damien Mama) to the NFL.

Now that the hype train has finally slowed down, I talked to a number of NFL coaches and scouts who watched him play on Friday night—though this was before they’ve really broken down the tape—to try and get an idea of what the 20-17 road loss meant for Darnold’s stock.

The first thing that came up was what the above scout mentioned, how Darnold needs better discipline in not staring down the receiver he’s going to. The best example came on his interception early in the second quarter, when Darnold took the snap, immediately looked to his left at Josh Imatorbhebhe, and stayed there long enough for Washington State corner Sean Harper to undercut the receiver.

Second, in the Washington State game, Darnold’s eyes dropped. Those three linemen the Trojans lost from 2016? By the end of Friday night they were down three more, and more than one evaluator noticed that Darnold clearly didn’t trust the guys protecting him. As a result, he had happy feet for much of the night, looked to run more (a career-high nine rushing attempts), and missed throws he usually doesn’t. And, again, he was caught looking at the rush, most notably on the sack-fumble that clinched the win for the hosts.

Third, Darnold’s forces throws. Scouts believe it’s happening more this year for three reasons: (1) he’s hyper-competitive; (2) he has a deep belief in his physical ability; and (3) with a young team around him, he knows he has to be really good. That, of course, is not unlike where Jameis Winston was during his final college season, during which he, like Darnold, had a young team around him.

Now, the good news is that a lot of this is fixable. He can, and will, be coached on his eye discipline, which has been fine in the past. He can certainly learn to protect the ball better, and the coaches can work on getting him easy completions so he doesn’t feel the need to be a hero on every down. Also, it’s USC, so even if the team is young, it’s talented, and with experience that should show.

The main thing here, though, is that this isn’t unusual. The fact that Deshaun Watson had 35 starts at Clemson—more than twice as many as Darnold has now—matters. By the time he declared for the draft, Watson had been faced with a lot of different challenges, the kind that Darnold’s working through now.

“Sometimes, it looks like he’s trying to do it all himself,” said a veteran personnel director. “But that’s just youth.”

So how about this? Let’s wait and see it how plays out. Darnold will have a decision to make on whether he’ll stay in school or go to the NFL—which I’ve heard could be impacted by which teams, and coaches, have high picks in April—after the season. By then, we should know a bunch more about where he is in his development.

And all of that gives him plenty of time, including possibly the 2018 season, to work his issues out.

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FIVE FROM SATURDAY

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1. Stanford’s Bryce Love has landed on the draft radar. Since he’s a true junior, most scouts are catching up on him now—with his size (he’s listed at 5' 10", 196 pounds) being the big question. But there’s no arguing the production. Through five games, Christian McCaffrey’s heir is already at 1,088 yards, and has gotten there in less than 100 carries, averaging 11.1 yards per. He went for 301 against Arizona State for the rebounding Cardinal last week.

2. Speaking of running backs, nice to see Nick Chubb starring in his return to the scene of his grotesque 2015 knee injury. He rushed for 109 yards as the bellcow in Georgia’s 41-0 blowout of Tennessee. Chubb likely would’ve been a second- or third-round pick last year, had he declared. That he didn’t, because of his stock and the injury history, surprised people. It will be interesting to see if staying for his senior year pays off.

3. How can you not be impressed with Alabama? They’ve won their first two conference games by an aggregate score of 125-3 (not a misprint) and both finals, wins over Vandy and Ole Miss, could’ve been more lopsided. One thing that a scout pointed out to me—a key to the Tide’s continued dominance—is how they rotate players in, so even when they lose starters (Bama lost an SEC-high 11 this year), they bring back experience. A good example would be senior DE Da’Shawn Hand, who’s a first-year starter but was more than ready for his role and now is emerging as a top NFL prospect.

4. We had Auburn’s Jarrett Stidham as last week’s quarterback who helped himself, and Stidham kept rolling in the Tigers’ blowout of Mississippi State. The redshirt sophomore completed 13 of 16 throws for 268 yards and two touchdowns. It’s hard to project players from Gus Malzahn’s offense to the NFL, but as a former blue chip recruit, Stidham does have tools.

5. This is sort of a reaction from Sunday, but give Clemson credit for their ability to develop offensive players who are ready to play on Sundays. Deshaun Watson is just one of them. Sammy Watkins, Martavis Bryant and DeAndre Hopkins were all able to contribute early in their NFL careers, and Watson’s fellow rookie Wayne Gallman might soon be the Giants’ starting tailback. While some see the scheme there as spread, pro coaches know better—the Tigers work a lot of pro concepts into what they do.