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Crabbs | USC QB Sam Darnold shows rare situational maturity

JAN 02 Rose Bowl - USC v Penn State
Photo by John Cordes/Icon Sportswire

Scouting Notes

Crabbs | USC QB Sam Darnold shows rare situational maturity

Think about the key buzz words that you hear offensive coaches talk about when asked how to win a football game. They’ll throw out phrases like “turnover differential”, “third down efficiency”, “two minute offense” and “red zone efficiency” consistently as vital markers of success.

It doesn’t take very long in reviewing the production of Southern Cal QB Sam Darnold to recognize he’s special. The upcoming redshirt sophomore was able to log some impressive numbers in his first year starting for the Trojans. Those numbers are most eye-popping specifically in those vital markers of success.

Darnold boasted a 62.7% completion percentage in the red zone and 23 of his 32 completions were touchdowns. For context, his 72% touchdown frequency on red zone completions crushes the three first round quarterbacks from the 2017 NFL Draft.

Darnold’s third down passing efficiency? He completed 60% of his passes on third and 7+ and converted 75% of those completions for first downs.  That equates to a 45% third and long conversion rate as a passer. How do those numbers compare to 2017 QBs and other 2018 eligible signal callers?

Lamar Jackson, Louisville: 44% completion on 3rd and 7+, Completion conversion: 65%. Overall conversion: 29%

Mason Rudolph, Oklahoma State: 58% completion on 3rd and 7+, Completion conversion: 65%. Overall conversion: 37%

Josh Allen, Wyoming: 45% completion on 3rd and 7%, Completion conversion: 72%. Overall conversion: 33%

Mitch Trubisky, Chicago Bears (2016 UNC): 61% completion on 3rd and 7+, Completion conversion: 66%. Overall conversion: 41%

Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City Chiefs (2016 Texas Tech): 60% completion on 3rd and 7+, Completion conversion: 75%. Overall conversion: 45%

Deshaun Watson, Houston Texans (2016 Clemson): 53% completion on 3rd and 7+, Completion conversion: 70%. Overall conversion: 37%

Only Patrick Mahomes’ passing outputs on third and long rival Darnold, who was a redshirt freshman making his first career starts in 2016. It’s impressive efficiency as a passer regardless of experience.

While the numbers are impressive; the numbers are secondary to the tape and what film is able to ascertain regarding Darnold as a player. The buzz surrounding the third year player is going to build to a boiling point over the course of next season, guaranteed.

You’ll hear fan and analysts suggest that NFL franchises are tanking for a shot to land Sam Darnold. Is the noise warranted? That’s what we’re going to look at now. Numbers lie, film doesn’t.

Darnold in the red zone

Look away, Seahawks fans. A rub concept down at the goal line! What stands out when inspecting Darnold here? You’d like to see this delivery a bit less telegraphed. But there’s an accurate strike on the body and when the hand cocks to throw, the ball is out quickly.

This is a confident strike. There’s no hesitation; in part because the alignment of the defensive backs at the ball is off coverage. There’s no need to worry about a log jam with the delivery and Darnold can throw confidently, knowing there’s space for his receiver to work


Later in the same contest, Darnold flashes a throw that is true to where he currently shines. Darnold is accurate on the move and he threw to the right in the red zone on nearly half his attempts. Darnold also hit 65% of those red zone throws to the right, many of them coming while rolling out of the pocket.

A few things on this throw: he gains ground into the line of scrimmage. Darnold is able to get more velocity on this throw because he understands he has space to climb and get kinetic momentum for extra juice.

Another thing of note? The trajectory and location of the football. There’s little loft on the throw, the trajectory is flat and the ball is right on the hands. It’s a nice placement on a throw that has greater margin for error; as throwing mechanics are easily compromised on a moving platform.


Before we even touch on the throw, what’s another game situation that coaches preach? Final two minutes. Darnold has the Trojans offense humming down inside the red zone with just 0:35 on the clock when this throw comes out the chute.

The placement on this throw is not great.  Darnold’s footwork could use some polish with the tackle in his sight line; you see the same snap stance that plagued Mitch Trubisky at times this past year at North Carolina. But knowing you’ve got a receiver in man coverage with a cornerback that is giving up 3 inches in height and 25 lbs?

Again, an active illustration of total game awareness. Plus, the Trojans only had one timeout remaining. Shots short of the end zone are going to force a premature kick unless it’s a pattern breaking into the sideline. The mechanics, from the ground up, need work.

But this is A+ stuff between the ears from Darnold.


Another rub concept from the Trojans to the wide side of the field. Another money throw away from the defender. But what I like most about this play is it’s not the primary read. Darnold clearly wants to target his tight end pressing to the goal line.

But the defensive back has leverage on the route and Darnold eats the throw, still keeping his eyes down the field. Shortly after followed by an on target dart into the end zone (on third down, no less).

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Kyle Crabbs

Kyle Crabbs is the founder/Director of Scouting of NDT Scouting Services, a member of the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and the lead NFL Draft analyst for the FanRag Sports Network.

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