Redshirt sophomore Sam Darnold ended his 2016 campaign on a tear. In the final 10 games of the season, he registered 3,086 yards, 31 touchdowns and 9 interceptions, so to say that his and the Trojans offense’s standards going into the 2017 season were high is an understatement.
The San Clemente native led the 13th-ranked offense, a unit that averaged 484.1 yards per game. But many scouts believe that he may have regressed and that his declaration to jump to the NFL is actually a mistake.
When you turn on his film, it is clear that Darnold made the correct decision. He has all of the tools needed to be a very good player at the next level if he puts the work in.
Darnold’s entire game is predicated upon his ability to create. Darnold is an athletic player; he is able to pull the ball down and gain chunks of yardage with his legs. His agility and change of direction catch many defenders off guard.
That is why offensive coordinator Tee Martin built an offense that maximized his legs. USC ran a heavy dose of run pass options (RPOs), a concept that gave Darnold many options pre- and post-snap, and he absolutely flourished. On a majority of their plays, Darnold had the ability to give the ball to star running back Ronald Jones, keep it as a runner, or throw it to one of his many weapons outside. This multi-dimensional structure of a play was obviously super productive. His decision making was very good all season, especially on these RPOs. He can process the coverage, find the conflict defender, and distribute the ball quickly.
Darnold prob gets this batted down if thrown in the first passing window. Shoulder fake & finds Burnett in the 2nd window. Great location and even better release by Burnett, slightly pushes the stem vertically and that is what puts him past the DB as it screws with his angle. pic.twitter.com/IJcUIKrFf9
— Cover 1 (@Cover1) January 29, 2018
But what is often overlooked is the accuracy and velocity needed on these kinds of concepts. At times, after the mesh with the running back or play fake, the passing lane is cluttered with defenders coming downhill to defend what they perceive to be a run. Once they realize that it is a pass, they immediately try to get their hands up in the passing lanes. Darnold makes these throws look easy. Standing at 6’4″ and 220 pounds, he is able to place the ball in optimal locations, allowing his weapons to make plays.
Don't take much stock in this statement, just file it away but Darnold and USC used a lot of predetermined RPOs much like Daboll did at Bama. His accuracy on RPOs and PA passes is the best so far in this class. Just saying pic.twitter.com/0st0r7l3by
— Cover 1 (@Cover1) January 30, 2018
At the next level, Darnold is going to make his money in the short area. While his elongated release and sloppy footwork will cause issues at times, something I will cover later, it isn’t an issue from 0-9 yards. That bodes well for Sam, because that is where football is won and lost on Sundays. His mechanics aren’t an issue because he is throwing in rhythm and not having to worry about mechanics.
According to SportsInfo Solutions (SIS), Darnold’s short game is phenomenal. From 0-9 yards, he had the highest completion percentage (75.4%), the 4th-most passing yards (1,534), 12th-most touchdowns (10), the 3rd-highest yards per attempt (7.6), and the 5th-highest rating (107.2).
These kind of passes are his bread and butter. One step, fire it with accuracy. Quick and accurate enough to save the WR from a big hit. pic.twitter.com/Q0a82ZWJnX
— Cover 1 (@Cover1) January 29, 2018
Whether he is throwing outside the hashes or inside, he has the anticipation and accuracy to carve up defenses.
That accuracy is just as good on throws while he is on the move. These kinds of plays are sometimes outside of the play structure.
But sometimes, they can be within the structure of the play. Offensive coordinators will love his ability to make plays in both manners, especially if he has to play early. This throw against Colorado was decisive, had the perfect amount of arc and great placement.
Play action rollout-Darnold has been really good throwing on the run through the two games I have watched. Great read of the corner as the CB/S appear to be pattern matching. The placement is ridic. pic.twitter.com/1e5oFix2u4
— Cover 1 (@Cover1) January 29, 2018
While his arm strength isn’t on the level of fellow draftee Josh Allen, Darnold shows the ability to consistently throw deep with touch AND accuracy. He trusts his receivers on 50/50 balls and in his own ability to place it perfectly.
He does a lot of the little things at which an NFL quarterback needs to be proficient, such as manipulating defenders and anticipating throws across all levels. On this play, the offense gets the single high look, 1-on-1 coverage outside. Darnold moves the safety and drops another dime.
Darnold gets the audible from the sideline, the single high look doesn't change post snap so he gets the 1 on 1 they were expecting. He made several bucket throws this game… pic.twitter.com/bY3VR8YUmb
— Cover 1 (@Cover1) February 1, 2018
But it’s these kinds of plays that have coaches at the next level drooling. On this play in the Cotton Bowl, Darnold moves the second level defender and anticipates the dig route to WR Burnett a full window over.
Against Ohio State, Darnold was under pressure 36 out of his 45 passing attempts. The Buckeyes ate up the pass blocking scheme and linemen. Although the Trojans got down early and never recovered, Darnold still battled. According to SIS, Darnold had the 3rd-most yards passing while under pressure, having registered 1,133 yards and 8 touchdowns, which includes 8 yards per attempt, 14th-most.
3rd and 12 down 24-7, Ohio State is still heating Darnold up. He does a great job of keeping his eyes downfield, escapes to his left, resets and uses a side arm delivery to slice this through traffic. Impressive. pic.twitter.com/dUQw8N6746
— Cover 1 (@Cover1) February 1, 2018
Bring all of his positive traits together and analyze them in the most important area of the field, the Red Zone. According to SIS, of all of the top quarterbacks in this class, Darnold has the second-highest touchdown percentage.
His quick decision making, accuracy, touch, ability to extend plays, throw on the run, and overall athleticism all play a huge part in his ability to make plays in the red area.
As productive as Darnold was over his 27 games at USC, he has some serious flaws that need to be addressed, the first of which is turnovers. Darnold threw 22 interceptions over two years and added another 20 fumbles. This lack of ball security will get you benched quickly.
“I think sometimes over the course of a year, just trying to do too much honestly. It sucks, but it’s true. I think it’s good that I’m aware of it, but just gotta be better. Can’t force a throw like I did on the pick-six, that was just really bad.” -Sam Darnold
While the offense surrendered an average of 2.14 sacks a game and a grand total of 30 sacks in 2017, he admitted that he was pushing it too much.
“Some of the strip sacks, those are going to happen when I’m going to throw and a guy comes from behind me and strips the ball out. But again, on some of the strip sacks, gotta keep two hands on the ball in the pocket. In terms of the turnovers all year, it sucks and it just kind of is what it is at this point.” -Sam Darnold
Many of his turnovers are linked to his mechanics. Darnold has some of the worst mechanics I have ever seen from a quarterback. Let’s start with his delivery. Typically, a quarterback with an elongated delivery like Darnold’s will struggle at the next level. From the time he begins his delivery to the time of release is often the difference between a tight window completion and an interception. Defensive backs are just too good on Sundays. If he is slightly late anticipating a throw and needs to drive a pass, the split second longer that it takes to release the ball due to his delivery could lead to an interception, much like it did versus Washington State. The safety bails post-snap, baiting Darnold to throw the speed out as he gets the 1-on-1 coverage. The defensive back reads the route, breaks, and picks him off.
The delivery isn’t the major issue with Darnold, because he can overcome it with anticipation and he does that rather well. When it comes to his mechanics, his footwork is absolutely atrocious. Most of this occurs as soon as he hits the top of his drop.
There are many schools of thought when it comes to feet at the top of the drop. Some like quiet feet a la Brady, sort of slight bouncing on his toes, ‘pushing down grass’. Some QB coaches like the foot fire technique, where each foot is calmly rotating slightly off the ground. Finally, many west coast offense coaches like the hitch technique. The QB will hitch up each time he moves onto his next target in his progression. Darnold doesn’t appear to live in any of these techniques. Too often he bounces in the pocket, where neither of his feet are on the ground, which can be an issue. If your feet aren’t on the ground, you are unable to pull the trigger at will. While he does complete this pass to WR Burnett, it shows how bad his base is.
Imagine him bouncing like that on Sundays. A window is about to open up on a crossing route at the intermediate level; will he be in a position to throw the pass and complete it? Or will he miss that opportunity?
Quarterback guru Dub Maddox teaches his students to ‘set the hallway’ with his back foot, which means he wants his quarterbacks to aim with the mid-foot of the back foot (right foot for right handed throwers). This sets up the entire throwing motion.
I suggest you watch this entire video created by Ted Nguyen and Dub Maddox.
If the feet aren’t aimed properly, if that hallway isn’t set, and the weight distribution of the quarterback isn’t correct, then it will lead to a loss in velocity and accuracy, much like this play versus Ohio State. Darnold’s shoulders are perpendicular to the sideline as he prepares to throw. His midfoot is not set up properly; he over-strides and steps toward the sideline, which leads to a poorly thrown ball. You can’t have those kinds of hiccups versus top tier college competition, let alone at the NFL level. It will lose you games.
There’s a reason why Darnold decided to make the jump to the NFL. He possesses a lot of plus traits. He has the type of athleticism that can help him make plays in all facets of the game. The zone reads, RPOs, play action rollout concepts, and quick passing game are areas where he will excel. He exhibits the ability to mentally process coverages pre- and post-snap, make throws to all levels of the field with reasonable velocity, but also with tremendous touch when needed. He throws a very catchable ball and rarely puts his receivers in harm’s way. He’s a competitor who will do anything to win, play in and play out. Sometimes that competitiveness leads to bad decisions like unnecessary sacks, fumbles, and interceptions. His mechanics are worrisome, but with proper coaching, the type of coach that stays on top of his fundamentals everyday will help alleviate some of his warts.
Pair him with a solid run game, mix in the quick passing game, changing the launch points, and even RPOs, and he will be a productive quarterback sooner than later.
In the end, Darnold graded out as a 5.292 and will be chosen in the 1st round, and rightfully so.