Sam Darnold was nervous. While the heralded quarterback prospects in this year’s draft faced similar pressures over the course of the 2017 season—prime-time games against marquee opponents, an intense spotlight, minute criticisms—Darnold had a different kind of obstacle ahead of him on this fall afternoon. He had Will Ferrell on episode four his podcast.
The skittish chuckles, the umms and uhhs before questions about George Bush impressions and the voice immodulation sketch, were all by design, the brainchild of Darnold and Yogi Roth, a former college football player, Pac-12 analyst and filmmaker who pitched Darnold the idea of a podcast that would stretch throughout his junior season at USC. It was meant to be a “master class” for Darnold, hurling him into the fire and forcing him to prepare for interviews with some of the most influential people in his life. It was called Season of Sam.
“I think one of the most unfortunate criticisms of athletes is that they’re just athletes,” Roth says. “And I understand that based on the craft. But I think kids in college, it’s a safe space to learn about yourself and to learn about life. What if we created this thing for Sam where he learned? People will be able to watch his growth like he’s in this class. My job was to keep it from going off the rails and to start it off, give football fans what they want.”
It was an opportunity for Darnold to learn, but also an opportunity for curious minds to learn about Darnold. Once he was anointed the crown jewel of the 2018 quarterback class, there was a sort of metaphysical distance placed between him and the general public who wanted to know more about a player who could realistically go No. 1 overall in the 2018 draft. Roth, who worked around Darnold’s practice schedule and sometimes had to delay tapings until after midnight because Darnold had papers due for various classes, found that what truly separates Darnold is a certain ease at being in the moment, regardless of what is being hurled at him. He called Darnold a genuine “seeker.” While some traits can easily get lost en route to the NFL, a calming presence and grounded mental state are usually traits coaches look for.
“I think you can categorize quarterbacks who are thinking about leaving early, generally, into three groups,” Roth says. “Group 1 would be the guy who talks to every agent, who is competing against the mock drafts that came out the year prior and is struggling with it. Number 2 is the guy who has it all figured out. Deshaun Watson had that. He had a plan, he knew where he was going and how to get it. He was going to graduate in three years and off you go.
“And then there’s Sam, who all of a sudden becomes the guy. That characteristic and archetype. I have to give him credit, he really did just shut everything out.”
This was evident even in the moments that were probably most uncomfortable to him—over Skype and phone calls with various celebrities, NFL analysts and television pundits like Colin Cowherd. He pinballed through the Ferrell interview, working himself out of moments that almost precisely mirrored Chris Farley’s classic nervous talk-show host character from Saturday Night Live.
“Um, do you ever get, maybe not tired? But, um, yeah I guess tired of people claiming you as the funny guy? I mean I know you love it and soak it up, but have you ever, like, wanted to go out and make, like, a super serious film and branch out a little bit? But I know it’s, like, your sweet spot and you’re really good at like, what we talked about earlier with improvisation and all that. But how much being the competitor that you are, how much have you wanted to branch out?”
Throughout Ferrell’s responses, Darnold can be heard cracking up, but he rolls with the awkwardness. By the end of the 45-minute segment, he rattles off a great question about Ferrell’s personal life, and how he coaches his children in youth soccer, like a weathered talk show host.
Teams spend millions of dollars and hours worth of personal visit time trying to make a player squirm while reciting plays or drawing coverages on a white board. They like to set traps and see how the quarterback works his way out of it. But if they’re looking for a far more organic example, perhaps they should check out the podcast.
THE JOSH ALLEN OFFENSE
Wyoming offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Brent Vigen has been on a roll. At North Dakota State he helped prepare QB Brock Jensen for a professional career that included a brief stint with the Miami Dolphins and a two-year stint in the CFL. Then there was Carson Wentz. Vigen’s latest star pupil, after a move to Wyoming: Josh Allen.
As I’ve written in the past, NFL teams tend to favor college coaches and schemes just as much as body types, and there’s a lot to like about Vigen’s pro-style system at Wyoming. I asked Jensen to walk us through a play call and explain a little bit about why a Vigen quarterback is so desirable in the eyes of NFL evaluators.
The basics: His quarterbacks use the wristband system. The play comes in via a running back, fullback or wide receiver switching on and off the field. It’s at least two calls, allowing the quarterback to check to another play or various run checks. Vigen’s quarterbacks have about 180 plays on their three-tiered wristband.
“A lot of times, we’ll have double calls, and depending on what we see at the line of scrimmage, what particular key we’re looking at, you check the play at the line or roll with the original play call,” Jensen says. “We had the freedom to change the play to a certain degree, a few run checks to where, if the quarterback saw an overload to one side, we’d run power the opposite way. He gave me freedom toward the end of my career. But at the same time, he gives you some rules within the system to go by.”
Vigen insists his quarterbacks learn the game. That much is obvious from all the variables in each call: Gun right wide (formation), combo zip (motion) 60 (protection), smash pistol S burst (route concept).
“I would be in charge of setting the protection the way I saw it fit the most,” Jensen says. “Usually trouble comes from the bubble, the one technique side, but we had indicators throughout the week, which way we wanted to set the protection.”
Jensen, who still keeps up with Vigen and recognized many of the same concepts at Wyoming, said that Vigen’s offense is absolutely an NFL pipeline system. By forcing them to call their own protections, they’re learning to recognize pressure from all sides of the field. By utilizing half-field concepts similar to those trumpeted by the Rams, 49ers and Washington, he’s forcing quarterbacks to recognize coverages off the bat.
“Take the smash pistol play call I gave you earlier. That’s a half-field concept. If it’s Cover 3, you read the pistol side, or any single high safety look you read the pistol side. Any Cover 2 look, you work the smash side. In a straight man, 10 coverage, you can do either, pick your best matchup and find your dog, who you want to go to.”
Rosen, as one analyst told me earlier in the draft process, will be high on teams’ draft boards because he played and excelled in three different offenses with pro influences. In terms of the mental portion of the game, Allen may not be that far behind.
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PARSING THE DRAFT HOT TAKE DU JOUR
Even Rosen’s former college coach, Jim Mora, says the Browns should take Sam Darnold No. 1.
I’ve read a few takes on this.
• Maybe Mora was trying to protect Rosen from Cleveland’s mystical, awful effect on quarterbacks.
• Maybe Mora is looking to excel as an analyst now and tried to put on his [adjusts glasses] tape devouring face on national television.
My thought? If you go into a family’s living room and promise them you’ll take care of their son or daughter at said university, and that teenager picks your school (to benefit your program and ultimately your wallet), that comes with a lifetime reciprocal commitment barring some wild extenuating circumstances. Regardless of what Mora meant, the remaining month until the draft will be populated with Buddy Garrity-esque nincompoops saying things like, “Well, his own coach wouldn’t even draft him, so why should my team?”
Mora easily could have skirted the question by saying, “I coached Josh, and he was great for our program, I think it would be hard for me to comment on anyone else.” In fairness to Mora, he’s been a militant supporter of Rosen in the public eye before, chewing out one ESPN analyst for suggesting he had a down year during a recruiting special.
Did he mean to throw shade at his former quarterback? Probably not. I don’t think Brian Kelly at Notre Dame meant for his comments about DeShone Kizer to be inflammatory last year when he said Kizer should have stayed in school. Ultimately, though, it reflects poorly on the kid, who now has to spend the next month of an already hectic time deflecting faux-criticisms.
YOUTUBE HIGHLIGHTS THAT MAY ONLY INTEREST ME
University of Texas-San Antonio’s Marcus Davenport could be the small school wonder of this year’s first round. One evaluator I spoke to back in February said he was among his favorites of 2018, and for good reason. Here he is against Baylor this past season:
Some questions to ask:
• How is his rush awareness? Is he blowing up plays or simply winning fistfights with less athletic offensive tackles?
• Where would you put him in a versatile NFL front?
• Does he finish plays?
• How comfortable does he look backpedaling into intermediate coverages?
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