Matthew Coller: Poker chips and apartment drop-backs: How Sam Darnold is learning the Vikings offense

The Vikings' quarterback is using every method he can think of in order to grasp KOC's system
Sam Darnold at mandatory minicamp.
Sam Darnold at mandatory minicamp. / Image courtesy of Andy Kenutis and the Minnesota Vikings.
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EAGAN — Sam Darnold had to stop to laugh a little when talking about his first couple days throwing to superstar wide receiver Justin Jefferson.

“Throwing to that guy, it’s fun, man,” Darnold said.

Jefferson and Darnold appeared to click quickly during mandatory minicamp last week as the veteran quarterback continued to look comfortable with the starting offense. Learning new teammates and new offenses is old hat to Darnold, who has played for the New York Jets, Carolina Panthers and San Francisco 49ers before arriving in Minnesota.

Over the years he has developed a process for mastering the X’s and O’s during the install periods of the spring. That starts with recording the plays into his phone and then playing them back, a tactic that Kirk Cousins also deployed when trying to memorize Kevin O’Connell’s offensive language.

“Recording [the plays] is a big one so I can hear it, hear it again and then say it,” Darnold said on Thursday.

In order to get the formations down, he likes to go beyond just saying them or writing them down, rather Darnold has something tangible to work with: Poker chips.

“Getting poker chips and writing out Q, H, Z, F, X, Y, and then moving them around to see concepts come together visually, that helps me out,” the Vikings’ QB said.

When he starts to lock in the basics, then he starts going through the footwork during his time away from the facility.

“A lot of times this far into the process I’m drawing it on the white board, saying it and in my apartment taking the drops and doing all the footwork stuff that I need to do to make sure I’m prepared to practice and for training camp and then go out there and play on Sundays,” Darnold said.

Be happy that you don’t live in the apartment below Darnold.

“I have a ball and I’m bouncing it around, I have to remind myself, ‘oh yeah, there’s people that live below me,’” he said.

The Vikings signed Darnold with the hope that he could become some version of the player that was considered a top-notch prospect at USC by giving him the right type of offense and weapons like Jefferson, Jordan Addison and two quality offensive tackles around him. Those are things he’s only had shades of in the past.

“Sam's(Darnold) had a great spring, really engaging with a new offense, new verbiage, new teammates and every single day getting a lot out of it with production but then also making sure mistakes aren't being made twice,” O’Connell said.

Notes from Kevin O’Connell’s interview with Rich Eisen

The Vikings’ head coach gave an in-depth interview with talk host Rich Eisen on Monday. Here’s a few of the takeaways:

— O’Connell said that they are happy with the progress that JJ McCarthy has made during the spring and they “confirmed” things that they saw during the pre-draft process. He said that the main determining factor for McCarthy starting is going to be his comfort with the system. "We have a long-term plan for JJ, we see him as quarterback of the future and when that starts with him taking game reps will be about demonstrating total comfort in the system"

— O’Connell talked about studying the Michigan offense and trying to work with McCarthy on things from his college scheme that would be applicable within the Vikings’ offense. "How many times can we apply principals that we saw on tape [at Michigan]?" he said.

— The Vikings’ HC talked briefly about the guard position, saying they were happy to get Dalton Risner back to compete with both Blake Brandel and Ed Ingram. The mention of the right guard is notable as Risner has always played left guard during his career. He looked to be taking some reps on both sides but whether there is actually a competition for the starting spot was in question. We’ll see in training camp if Risner gets any reps with the first team at right guard.

— On Darnold, O’Connell reiterated that the skill players around him is set up to allow for the quarterback to simply do his job rather than trying to carry the offense. “Our offense with the skill players around is set up to just put the ball in play and make great decisions and good things are going to happen without feeling like you have to put the weight of the world on your shoulders. That’s where Sam has had a great spring. I think he’s starting the rewards of that, he’s playing with more consistency.”

He continued to say that 2023 was a big season for Darnold’s improvement:

“He’s coming off a year where he really grew in San Francisco, whether it was being around Kyle [Shanahan], Brian Griese, Brock Purdy, watching a guy with a really talented team around him and not only distribute the ball but put the team on his back at times and understand when he had to make plays at times, make plays off schedule, make plays that are there in rhythm and good things are going to happen. That was a growth learning year.”

— As far as an actual QB competition in camp, O’Connell said: “We’re going to have a competitive camp where we give our guys an opportunity to both on the practice field and joint practice and in the games to identify what that quarterback room is going to look like. It’s perfectly OK for guys to have individual improvement and development plans on different timelines.”

— On Justin Jefferson’s contract, O’Connell revealed that he texted a GIF to Jefferson of Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer dancing once he found out the deal was done.