The college football season doesn’t start until the fall but it’s never too early to start looking ahead.
USA TODAY Sports
LOS ANGELES — Sam Darnold’s exit interview with USC coaches took place shortly after the Trojans’ January 1 Rose Bowl win, in a room with head coach Clay Helton, quarterbacks coach Tyson Helton and strength coach Ivan Lewis.
It wasn’t long: 20 minutes, give or take. And it didn’t detail any major changes for the rising sophomore, who took college football by storm in leading USC on a nine-game winning streak after a middling start to the 2016 season.
“He’s not a finished product,” Clay Helton said. “But he is special. He is special. And whatever it is, he has it. There’s no question.”
After a stunning debut as a redshirt freshman, Darnold and his coaches have identified a few areas where he can advance his game before the Trojans kick off their College Football Playoff push in September. At the same time, however, his coaches are cautious as they walk a fine line.
There’s room for improvement in his mechanics. Darnold has worked with both Tyson Helton and a private coach, Jordan Palmer, on his footwork and delivery. The coaches speak to Darnold about staying “on platform,” getting his feet and shoulders square before throwing the football.
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Yet the Trojans’ coaching staff doesn’t want to rob Darnold of perhaps the defining characteristic of his game: creativity and inventiveness within the framework of the offense.
“They don’t want me to not be that creative type of player,” he said. “They want me to play the game.”
So the Trojans will continue to expand the playbook to match Darnold’s skill set. The system has broadened to include more run-pass options, plays that give Darnold the choice between two directions based on the formation and tendencies of the defense. By the second half of last season, Helton had given Darnold the ability to dictate his offensive line’s protection packages. This spring, USC began to allow Darnold the option of calling an audible based on the defense.
It’s a delicate balancing act. How do you improve as a traditional passer without sacrificing what makes Darnold unique? In the annals of USC history, littered as it is with quarterbacking stars, there has been no one quite like the sophomore; he’s the program’s first true dual-threat player to take the reins under center.
“He’s so creative, I get so nervous sometimes even worrying about mechanics,” Helton said. “His core is so strong and he can make every throw on the field. His anticipation, his timing and then the use of his core — he’s not a guy that has to wind up, the ball comes out so quick. He doesn’t even have to take a step. He’s unbelievable at it.”
The answer might be in the details. Darnold is “the best one-on-one leader and confident leader that I’ve been around,” said Helton, who relayed an anecdote: Shortly after moving into the starting role last September, Darnold tossed a touchdown pass during a seven-on-seven workout to former USC wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, who then celebrated the score in the end zone. Great route, Darnold said, but we don’t need that stuff.
“He’s the one-on-one guy. He’ll take guys aside,” said senior safety Chris Hawkins. “I think he’s rubbed off on the team where we’re never too low, never too high. He’s flat line all the time.”
But during that exit interview in January, his coaches spoke to Darnold about subtle areas in need of improvement. We want you stronger and faster, he was told. To be a more vocal leader on a team-wide level. To be a better situational quarterback — meaning aware of down and distance and the environment, as a coach on the field from his position at quarterback.
“The biggest thing for me is the decision making,” Helton said. “Not to say he’s a gunslinger, but there’s probably three or four times last year that I know he wanted the ball back.”
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As in the Trojans’ win against UCLA, when Darnold tossed two interceptions. After the first, which came on a third-down play late in the first quarter, Helton told Darnold to remember the situation. It’s OK to punt, he said. We’ll get the ball back.
For USC coaches this offseason, tweaking his decision-making process might be the strongest point of emphasis. It’s also an area where the Trojans can address Darnold’s performance while maintain the same general approach behind last year’s explosive production.
Take the Rose Bowl as the brightest example. A few weeks after the game, a photographer sent Helton the pictures he’d taken from the sideline. Included were three of Darnold. Though the Trojans didn’t allow a sack in the win against Penn State, each photo saw Darnold fighting and scrambling to avoid the pass rush.
“But he found a way,” Helton said. “Man, does that define the guy. He gets us out of trouble so many times that you don’t even see. You take it for granted, absolutely.”
Starting from this position of strength, it might seem as if there’s little room — or need — for improvement. After all, it seems to be working. But to his coaches, an offseason spent focusing on the details will help Darnold take the next step in his development.
“You spend the time in the offseason, you spend time in the playbook and with your receivers every single day in the summer,” Darnold said. “That stuff doesn’t just happen. You work towards it.”
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