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ED CRISOSTOMO, STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
USC quarterbacks Sam Darnold, right, and Max Browne talk with the media after Tuesday's spring practice at Howard Jones Field at USC.

Darnold has held his own in USC quarterback battle

STAFF WRITER

LOS ANGELES – USC’s quarterback competition apparently will be extended to the fall, and that’s good news for Sam Darnold, the young underdog. Yet Darnold will accept this news with surprising trepidation.

“I would be OK with it, but I’m not sure that’s the same answer the team would give,” Darnold said recently. “Some guys, I think they want to have a clear guy, someone they can start to build around and look up to. That is what I think would be best for the team, naming a guy right after spring.”

That is something not seen on every football field: a teenager with a pronounced sense of pragmatism.

Let there be no confusion. Darnold wants to win the job. He overcame a high school injury and committed to USC at a time when the Trojans already had a quarterback, his successor and his successor’s successor (presumably) lined up. This is a confident kid who knows what he wants yet has the patience to wait for it.

That wait might be shorter than expected. Darnold, a redshirt freshman from San Clemente High, has pushed redshirt junior Max Browne throughout 14 spring practices. The end arrives Saturday afternoon with USC’s annual spring scrimmage, and Coach Clay Helton has said he won’t name a starter for the 2016 season unless there’s a “huge gap.” At one point, that seemed inevitable. Now, it’s doubtful.

“The kid has grown up fast, on and off the field,” USC receiver Darreus Rogers said of Darnold. “He has become a natural leader and his instincts on the field are amazing. What more can you ask for?”

Experience would be the only thing. Darnold is 18 and hasn’t taken a snap in a college game. Asking him to play Alabama on Sept.3 in front of as many as 101,000 fans seems imprudent on some level, particularly given that the 21-year-old Browne appears cool-headed and confident going into his fourth season.

Yet Browne has never started either, and has attempted only 19 college passes. Darnold, a pass-run threat with great size and speed, arguably has the higher ceiling, so why not let him play and learn?

“The hardest thing for Sam Darnold to do is sit on the bench, sit on the sidelines,” his grandfather, Mike Darnold, said. “He just wants to play. This is totally hypothetical, but if Helton came to him and said, ‘I want you to be a receiver this year,’ Sam would catch the ball. He just wants to play the game.”

That’s clear from watching him. Darnold’s on-field decisions suggest intelligence but also a level of instinct that can’t be taught. Darnold said his mechanics could stand to be improved, but then he’s never had a regular private quarterback coach.

That’s because Darnold isn’t a programmed, robotic quarterback, and doesn’t seek to be one. Darnold played football, basketball and baseball until ninth grade, when he dropped the latter. At 6-foot-4, 215 pounds, he’s sneaky fast, with a build that suggests if he bulked up a bit, he could thrive at linebacker.

It might be an oversimplification, but Darnold’s skill set includes all the grit and competitiveness of Cody Kessler, but with a stronger arm and a run threat not seen in recent USC quarterbacks.

“I’m not saying people should expect the next Johnny Manziel,” Darnold said. “It’s just adding a little bit more to the table. I’m a pass-first quarterback. I’m not looking to run if I’m in a passing situation. There’s definitely an evolution in football, but winning with a guy who is not as mobile, it’s still definitely possible.”

Asked for a self-analysis, Darnold said he started slow in spring ball but increasingly learned new installations in the USC offense and became more comfortable with his linemen and receivers.

First-year USC quarterbacks coach Tyson Helton said he doesn’t expect his charges to be “picture-perfect” and said he has been impressed with Darnold’s ability to make quick adjustments.

“The thing about good quarterbacks is,” Helton said, “sometimes they may not go to the right place, but the ball is still complete and they still throw touchdowns. That seems to happen with Sam. He might not always be right, but he makes it right.”

Darnold has a history of taking the roundabout way to success. It started as a sophomore at San Clemente.

On Oct.26, Darnold got his first start at quarterback after Sean Donnelly suffered a shoulder injury. Tesoro, then one of Orange County’s top teams, took a 21-7 lead into the fourth quarter, but with 14 seconds left, Darnold threw a 34-yard touchdown pass and a two-point conversion pass and the Tritons pulled the upset.

“That was the spark, I guess you could say, for sure,” Darnold said.

It didn’t last. Three games into his junior season, Darnold broke his foot. That’s a critical year for recruiting, and Darnold missed most of it. Recruiting services listed Darnold as a three-star quarterback – good, but far from great – and Darnold watched as USC, his dream school, landed five-star quarterback Ricky Town.

Things turned around. Darnold returned to health the following spring, and recruiting letters and scholarship offers increased in volume. Darnold attracted big football programs such as Oregon and Tennessee, and his strong academics drew the interest of Ivy League schools such as Harvard and Yale.

Darnold chose USC last July, knowing that when he arrived, Kessler would have one year of eligibility, Browne would have three and Town, who enrolled early as a freshman, would have four. Family and friends must have looked at Darnold and said ...

“What are you doing?” Darnold said, accurately finishing a reporter’s question. “I told them, wherever I go, I’m going to have to compete. I wouldn’t have wanted to go to a college where the job was just going to be handed to me. It’s always nice to play football on Saturdays, but I would much rather earn it. I think there’s something to be said for that.”

The Town-Darnold competition, expected to play out over two or three years, lasted about two months.

Darnold started practicing with the Trojans in the summer of 2015 and then, two weeks into fall camp, Town announced he would transfer. No particular reason was given, but suddenly, Darnold looked like a genius.

“What caught me by surprise was how early he left,” Darnold said, “but that’s something you’d have to ask him about. I was surprised, but I was only here to control what I could control.”

So far, it’s working. Darnold redshirted last season but was named USC’s “offensive service team player of the year.” In that role, Darnold attempted to mimic each week’s opposing quarterback.

Clay Helton said a competition to replace Kessler would be held this spring. At times, Helton seemed on the verge of naming Browne his starter, only to back off days later. The presumption was that Darnold would need to be special this spring in order to prevent Browne’s coronation and, well, the competition continues.

“I was feeling bad at the start of spring practice,” grandfather Mike Darnold said. “Sam was getting time but he was playing with the second team. My son and I weren’t real happy on the sidelines, and afterward, Sam comes up to us and says, ‘Grandpa, Dad, what’s with you guys? I’m a quarterback at USC. Look at where I am.’ He’s thinking, it doesn’t get any better than this.”

Contact the writer: rhammond@ocregister.com


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