LOS ANGELES—The forecast at Rivals was for UCLA’s Josh Rosen to be sitting center stage at Friday’s Rose Bowl media day session in a downtown hotel.
Instead, the cross-town wires got crossed up, so there sat USC’s Sam Darnold.
Let’s face it: Darnold wasn’t Rosen coming out of the 2015 high school recruiting class.
Darnold wasn’t even the “Chosen One” at USC.
The Trojans’ 2015 quarterback class featured Ricky Town, who enrolled early and joined a future competition that included Max Browne, the 2012 Gatorade National Player of the Year.
Darnold took a long-view bet, on himself, that pretty passing camps throws and fancy cone-drill steps weren’t the ultimate decider.
The real quarterback competition is, duh, on the field.
USC receiver Juju Smith-Schuster summed it up: “Sam was like, ‘the best player plays, right?’”
Well, yes, maybe, eventually, once you get past all the fragile egos and prickly, pigskin politics.
Town didn’t stick around long enough to find out, transferring out almost before anyone noticed.
Yet, Darnold wasn’t even the preferred choice this year, even after Cody Kessler moved on after a fine career.
The nod went to Browne, a third-year Mr. Everything out of high school in Seattle.
An entitled quarterback who grew up with a nanny might have also sulked off to file his paper work. But Darnold never wanted anything given to him that he didn’t earn.
He’s a refreshing story in an era of pampered, cookie-cutter players who think careers are made at 7-on-7 camps. They’re not.
Darnold has seen top prospects get sidetracked when things don’t immediately go their way. Darnold was never that guy.
“I think it has a lot to do with your mindset coming into college, just continuing to work hard no matter what the circumstance may be,” he said Friday in advance of Monday’s game against Penn State. “You may not win a job your true freshman year, which some guys think that they can do coming into their true freshman year. If they don’t win that job, sometimes they get their head down, they get down. I mean, no matter what the circumstances are, you just want to stay up and be confident in your abilities. You just want to continue to work hard even if sometimes you feel like you’re not getting a fair opportunity.”
Darnold didn’t leave San Clemente High with the fanfare of others in his class, which included Jake Browning and Rosen. Sports Illustrated put out a top 10 list of quarterbacks to watch on signing day 2015. Darnold wasn’t on it.
But, hey, ESPN had him rated No. 115 on its ESPN300 list.
It would take persistence and patience to outlast the noise, the hype and even the Trojans’ coaching staff.
Best players play, right?
Well, yes, maybe, eventually.
It took some sorting out and maybe a first-year coach, Clay Helton, looking out for his own future after this year’s 1-2 start. He finally handed the Darnold the ball in Utah, one of the toughest Pac 12 places to play, and wished the second-year freshman good luck–or else.
USC lost the game because Helton, protecting a late lead, didn’t believe enough in Darnold to go for it on fourth-and-three at Utah’s 37. Helton punted and Utah went 93 yards for the win.
Darnold hasn’t been stopped since, leading USC to eight straight wins with an arsenal and swagger not seen at the position since, when, Rodney Peete or Vince Evans?
The cross-town irony is not lost. Darnold, not UCLA’s Josh Rosen, led USC to THE Rose Bowl first. Rosen only plays home games on the field.
The comparisons provide rivalry fodder. Rosen rose from St. John Bosco as the sure-shot thing, a three-and-done destined for the first pick of the 2018 NFL draft. Rosen throws a prettier pass and looks more pro-ready in the pocket. He has shown flashes of brilliance in Westwood, where he was anointed UCLA’s starter the day he stepped on campus.
Yet, unless Rosen turns things around next year, he will have lost the town to a worker bee who looks like a linebacker. Rosen’s sophomore season was sacked by injury concerns and even whispers inside the program that he isn’t a team player.
Darnold, not Rosen, is going to enter 2017 season as the top Heisman Trophy candidate in town.
These are just facts. Darnold is being hailed as a consummate team player and leader, attributes that will serve him well as he is considered for the next level.
If you were playing a game today, who would you want at quarterback: Darnold or Rosen?
There is a difference between a football prospect and a football player.
Darnold has a funky throwing motion but seems to, instinctively, know how to play. He possesses things a top quarterback needs, like a short memory. Darnold isn’t afraid to takes chances or to make mistakes.
“Sometimes, when you’re the quarterback, you’ve just got to play ball,” USC offensive coordinator Tee Martin said of Darnold. “That’s the thing Sam does so well. He just plays ball.”
Darnold, with a Rose Bowl win on Monday, will go from a non-starter in fall camp straight to the Trojan hall of fame. Despite his late start, he has thrown for 2,633 yards this year, with 26 touchdown passes against only eight interceptions. He has also rushed for 230 yards, giving a historically pro-style program an added dimension.
Other guys talk a big game.
“You can barely get a word out of him off the field,” tailback Justin Davis said of Darnold. “But on the field he turns into a general.”
Or, as they’re saying around USC these days: Lead on.
Kessler is gone and now Town and Browne have transferred. The kid from San Clemente, once just part of a mix, is now poised to leave his hand prints in cement.
“When my opportunity was given, I ran with it,” Darnold said. “And didn’t look back.”