The nation's No. 31 rated signal-caller has played all over the field for the San Clemente Tritons. In 2012, Darnold played linebacker and receiver in a addition to playing nine games at quarterback.
As a junior, Darnold battled a broken foot and missed most of the season while only passing for 320 yards and four touchdowns. It seems easier to describe Darnold by what he isn’t rather than what he is.
Darnold isn’t a rock-star signal-caller with years of private quarterback tutoring under his belt. Darnold isn’t the first quarterback to commit to USC in the class of 2015. Darnold isn’t afraid of competition.
Darnold isn’t a pure pocket passer nor is he running 4.50 in the 40-yard dash.
However, according to Scout National Recruiting Analysts Greg Biggins, Darnold may bring the best balance of running and passing to USC’s roster in two years.
“Take Cody Kessler out of the equation,” said Biggins. “Kessler only has one or two years left to play at USC, so you’re really looking at Max Browne, Jalen Greene and Ricky Town as the quarterbacks affecting Darnold on the current roster.
“I’m not saying he’s the best prospect of the bunch, but Sam Darnold is the one guy who combines the abilities of an athletic quarterback and a pocket passer the best. Jalen is the athlete, Town and Browne are the pure pocket quarterbacks.
“People see Sam as a 6-foot-4 red headed kid and automatically think he’s a pocket passer. But this is a guy who was all league MVP in basketball as a sophomore. That’s in the South Coast League, which has pretty good competition.
“A couple schools offered him as a linebacker his sophomore year as well. So he’s a big, physical kid who can run. Then you look at his ability to pass in the pocket. He’s extremely smart, is good in his drops and reads the defense well.
“He has Stanford type grades, so he’s a very cerebral guy. He combines the best of both worlds and is a pretty good fit with what (Steve Sarkisian) wants to do.”
Shaping the USC offense
Sarkisian’s version of the USC offense has yet to be completely revealed. Before running the no-huddle at Washington last season, Sarkisian ran the same pro-style offense the Trojans have been using since Pete Carroll stepped on campus in 2001.
With Kessler, Browne and Town all pocket passers, successfully executing misdirection and read option at a breakneck pace could be difficult.
“Sam Darnold even said this, ‘Cody isn’t a running quarterback, but Sark didn’t recruit Cody,’” said Biggins. “They’re going to fit their offense around their quarterback.
“Ideally, after Cody is around for one or two years, I think they do want a quarterback that can run around. Cody is the guy right now, and he’s not the best runner, so I think they’ll do things to showcase his abilities.
“But as Sam told me, they want a guy that can run the ball six to eight times a game. I don’t think we’re going to see the true Sark offense until that guy emerges.”
The Inverted Eagle
Of course, that assumes Sarkisian doesn’t pivot his scheme away from using the quarterback on designed runs permanently. Sprouting from the Norm Chow branch of offensive coaching, Sarkisian’s roots are in spread formations and passing.
Good coaches make do with what personnel they have, which is what Chip Kelly did in Philadelphia when Michael Vick went down and the Eagles were forced to use pocket passer Nick Foles the remainder of the season.
Now the Eagles have Foles, Matt Barkley and Mark Sanchez as their three-deep at quarterback.
“I think the difference between the pro and college game is pretty significant,” said Biggins. “I don’t think you can run your quarterback in the pro game like you can in college.
“But I do think Sark learned from Chip. Sark is a smart guy and he knows what a modern day offense is. Now, Sark also learned from Norm Chow and has pro-style offense all through his bloodlines.
“So there will always be a lot of pro-style concepts in Sark’s offense. But if you watched UW, not only did he go high tempo, but he let Keith Price run around some. They’ll keep elements of the pro-style, but you’ll see things like the shotgun used too.
“At one time, it was Bama, USC and Stanford that were old school pro-style offenses. Sark is already getting away from that just by going shotgun. Sam Darnold said they’re going to be going almost all shotgun, uptempo.
“Is he influenced by Chip? I think 100-percent he is from the standpoint of using a mobile quarterback and going uptempo, but his roots from a concept standpoint are going to be pro-style.”
USC can only hope to have the production the Eagles did a year ago under Kelly.
But while Biggins thinks dual-threat eventually wins out for the Trojans, he also wonders if a pocket-passer doesn’t delay the transformation at the quarterback position for USC.
“I still like Max Browne to be honest,” said Biggins. “I haven’t seen him throw at USC, but I had a chance to catch up with him at Steve Clarkson’s quarterback retreat a few months ago.
“Max said that he was just coming off a hand injury, so he wasn’t at his best. But talking to Max Wittek, who was also there as a counselor, he raved about Max Browne.
“He told me Browne was the smartest quarterback he has ever been around — he’s going to be special. You don’t really hear quarterbacks compliment each other like that very often, but Max Wittek went on and on about Max Browne as a special talent.”
Sam’s the man
With USC still reeling from sanctions, some Trojans fans question the logic in taking two quarterbacks in the class of 2015. Finally recruiting a full class of 25 players, the Trojans have several areas of depth that need addressed.
“USC has plenty of options right now,” said Biggins. “Jalen is the pure athlete, so maybe you want to rotate him in with Cody or Max Browne to keep the defense honest in the run game.
“Sam told me they want to run the quarterback six to eights times by design. That’s a pretty big part of your offense. Cody, Max and Ricky Town aren’t really suited to do that.
“So I think you want four quarterbacks on roster. My only concern would be that three of them are within one year of each other. Max Browne is going to be a redshirt freshman, Jalen Greene is going to be a true freshman and then you have Ricky Town and Sam Darnold coming in right on top of them.
“You really want to space it out and take one a year, so that’s a concern. You have three guys who are young, so I anticipate one of those guys will eventually transfer leaving four on the roster.
“I think quarterbacks are like point guards in basketball — you can never have too many good ones. It’s such an important position. Obviously for Sark, with the depth they have, to offer Sam Darnold shows they must like him a lot.
“He’s a very good fit in that offense, so even if they already have guys, Sam is their guy. He is the one they pursued and he committed with those other quarterbacks already in the program.”