The most talented NFL quarterback prospect is not at the NFL Scouting Combine. That's not because he's being ignored. It's because he's too young to be eligible yet.
From a distance one year ago, Sam Darnold winning the starting quarterback job at USC seemed unlikely. Yes, he was talented. Yes, he was a blue-chip recruit himself. Yes, there was chatter that he could be the choice. But the idea of Max Browne as the quarterback of the Trojans' future had become ingrained over four years, from the time he verbally committed as a recruit in April 2012 to the departure of Cody Kessler after the 2015 season. A No. 1 ranked quarterback recruit, Browne had patiently waited his turn, and last offseason, the time had seemingly arrived for him to start and deliver on his long-awaited potential. USC and coach Clay Helton initially agreed, naming Browne the starter to open 2016.
Now, with spring practice 2017 nearing, circumstances couldn't have changed more drastically. Browne is at Pitt as a graduate transfer, while Darnold is the biggest rising star in college football.
After three seasons as a backup, Browne lasted three games as the starter: losses to Alabama and Stanford sandwiched around a win over Utah State. Under immense pressure after an inauspicious start to the season, Helton benched Browne for Darnold, the 6-foot-4, 225-pound redshirt freshman. And after one tough outing -- a blown lead at Utah to drop the team record to 1-3 -- Darnold changed the trajectory of USC.
In 2017, Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson and Heisman finalist Baker Mayfield will return, along with numerous other accomplished quarterbacks. None, however, will be the recipient of more preseason hype than Darnold, who has 10 starts under his belt and may rapidly be becoming the favorite to be the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. According to Sportsbook, Darnold is tied with Jackson and Mayfield atop the early 2017 Heisman odds. Bovada has him No. 1 , as of Feb. 20. On Wednesday, NFL.com's Daniel Jeremiah cited an NFL excecutive saying that Darnold is the talk of the NFL Scouting Combine … even though he won't be there until next year, at the earliest.
Text from NFL exec-- biggest talk at Combine, and it's not close--USC QB is rare. (It's tough to ignore him when you're studying other guys)- Daniel Jeremiah (@MoveTheSticks) March 1, 2017
There are several possible first-round picks at the 2017 combine happening in Indianapolis this week -- Deshaun Watson, Mitch Trubisky, DeShone Kizer, Patrick Mahomes -- but Darnold is already starting to look like a better pro prospect than any of them, thus becoming the very early top quarterback target in 2018 despite the fact that he'll be only a redshirt sophomore this fall and isn't a lock to enter the draft next spring.
After that first loss to Utah, Darnold led USC on a nine-game winning streak capped by a 453-yard, five-TD performance in the thrilling comeback win over Penn State in the Rose Bowl. It was the type of performance on a national stage that makes a player into a superstar; that's especially true at USC, where the starting quarterback role has become one of the most high-profile positions in the sport. Tailback U has become Quarterback U in a pass-first age in which California is the capital of prep quarterbacking, and now Darnold has the upper hand on crosstown rival Josh Rosen, the touted five-star prospect at UCLA who is trying to bounce-back from an injury-plagued sophomore season.
Hype for USC quarterbacks is hardly new. USC quarterbacks haven't lived up to expectations in the NFL, including top-10 picks Matt Leinart and Mark Sanchez, and players like Kessler and Matt Barkley turned out to be viewed much differently than expected by the NFL before and after their final seasons with the Trojans. However, it's not hard to see why the hype has taken off for Darnold, who is more like a mobile version of Carson Palmer, thanks to his pocket poise under pressure, size, arm strength and field vision, to go along with the athleticism that allows him to be a threat on the move.
There's always danger in putting too much stock into a bowl performance -- whether it's a team or individual player -- when analyzing what will happen the next season. But hyping Darnold is not some sort of bowl bump situation. He was fantastic down the stretch, ultimately completing 67.2 percent for 3,086 yards, 31 touchdowns and nine interceptions despite not starting until the Trojans' fourth game. His passer rating against Power Five opponents placed him fourth nationally, according to cfbstats.com,
Those are exceptional numbers for anyone, let alone a redshirt freshman who began the season on the bench, and Darnold's performance over the course of the year, combined with USC's resurgence, is more than enough to justify heightened preseason expectations for the Trojans heading into the fall. Expectations for quarterbacks have repeatedly been upended, so there are no guarantees, but Darnold will rightfully be viewed as the best NFL quarterback prospect entering the 2017 season.
There will be challenges, of course. The USC offensive line had a substantial turnaround last season, giving up only 12 sacks in 13 games, but tackles Chad Wheeler and Zach Banner are gone. Top two receiving targets JuJu Smith-Schuster and Darreus Rogers are also gone. There's added pressure now, too, as USC and Darnold have gone from being dismissed last September to being playoff frontrunners in 2017. Darnold is still young, and like any young quarterback, he can be inaccurate at times and make ill-advised throws.
Darnold is set up to succeed, though, assuming the offensive tackle situations turns out OK. Deontay Burnett has emerged as a rising star at receivers, and Ronald Jones is ready for big things at running back. Despite its post-Pete Carroll downturn, USC has regularly recruited at a high level, and it should also be much better defensively next season. There's plenty of talent, all surrounding the most promising quarterback in college football.
Darnold showed remarkable polish and confidence as a redshirt freshman taking over a struggling team in September, and he ended his rookie year with one of the most impressive performances by any quarterback all season. Now, he's the face of USC's revival.
The Trojans have failed to meet heightened expectations whenever they've arisen in recent years, but this time should be different. They just need to continue to capitalize quickly on Darnold's talent, because at this rate, the NFL will come calling for Darnold sooner than anyone thought possible six months ago.