USC redshirt sophomore Sam Darnold entered the 2017 season as the NDT Scouting staff‘s top quarterback according to our preseason draft-eligible rankings. His opening performance against the Western Michigan Broncos told a different story, however. Darnold completed 69 percent of his passes in the season opener for a total of 289 yards, but the big takeaway here is that he threw two interceptions without a single touchdown.
As I wrote in my scouting notes piece of the game itself, Darnold did not necessarily have a bad performance. Instead, he failed to rise to the occasion that many would expect an elite quarterback prospect to do against a team like Western Michigan. Almost every 2018 NFL mock draft since USC played Penn State in the Rose Bowl has featured Sam Darnold in the top five. On Saturday, Darnold runs into a rigid Stanford Cardinal defense that may prove to be his toughest test of the season.
There are a couple of different ways this game could go for Sam Darnold. If Stanford beats USC, Darnold could have a solid performance and still get pushed down because of the high preseason expectations given to the Trojans. USC could beat Stanford, but if Ronald Jones II and Stephen Carr are forced to carry the Trojans to victory again, what does that do to Darnold’s draft stock? It also goes down.
A win is not enough for Sam Darnold this weekend. In fact, he needs both a win AND a solid performance to solidify his draft status. Why? Because this game against the Cardinal is arguably his toughest and most important test of the season to NFL scouts. Darnold is unlikely to see a defense as good as Stanford for the rest of the season. In addition, these scouts want to see how he bounces back after a poor showing against an inferior Western Michigan.
The last time a hyped-up NFL quarterback prospect led a USC team with huge expectations into a game against Stanford? Matt Barkley. USC was ranked second in the nation entering that game. The Trojans lost the game 21-14, and Barkley had a stat line of: 20-41, 254 yards, zero touchdowns and two interceptions. As a result, USC’s wheels fell off, Matt Barkley’s draft stock slowly went down the drain, and vehicles of transportation started leaving off Lane Kiffin.
I am not saying this is going to happen to Sam Darnold or the 2017 USC Trojans, as I am bullish on their chances as a playoff contender. However, if Darnold does not bounce back from his Western Michigan performance against Stanford, what is the pro-Darnold argument going forward? His weapons are not Juju Smith-Schuster or Adoree’ Jackson, but he does have a young stud in Deontay Burnett. On second glance, plenty of the incomplete passes were drops, but both of Darnold’s interceptions were either under-thrown or behind the receiver. Darnold’s highlights, however, came from check downs and the short game.
For a quarterback whose two main calling cards are ball placement and arm talent, Darnold needs to find his groove again.
I still believe Sam Darnold has the tools to be an elite NFL quarterback prospect, but USC is not going anywhere if he continues to perform like he did against Western Michigan. Maybe it was just a slow start and adjustment to new receivers, but he better figure it out quickly. If not, the Trojans’ ranking in the polls, as well as Darnold’s NFL draft stock, will take a blow. The ball is in your court this Saturday, Sam Darnold.