Despite being just two months removed from the 2017 NFL Draft, the scouting process is a highly-charged practice that is constantly engaged. Enter the discussion of Sam Darnold, the redshirt sophomore quarterback who guided USC to a 9-1 record and thrilling Rose Bowl victory as a starter with a performance in the latter that will forever find itself nestled at the heart of The Granddaddy’s lore.
Much has been made of Darnold’s ability, from lofty comparisons to confirmation of this article’s opening utterance. There’s not a semblance of doubt that his build, arm talent, confidence and poise support the parallels drawn between he and Luck-particularly because Darnold showcased such talents as a 19 year old-but I think the notion as a whole should be dispelled for the time being. What Jeremiah failed to touch on was Darnold’s unrefined footwork, an area that is arguably a passer’s most vital on-field trait: you can undergo Peyton Manning-level preparation and possess elite arm talent to carve up defensive units, but it’s all for naught if your footwork isn’t in a position to capitalize on such traits. Darnold’s inability to remain throw-ready and on schedule exemplified such belief.
On a positive note, Darnold’s opening throw against Oregon is this one-on-one deep shot to former Trojan great JuJu Smith-Schuster, a prime example of Darnold’s aggressive nature. The dissatisfaction stems from the fact that Darnold’s three-step off of play action (some will criticize the drop, but this appears to be a tempo drop that some quarterback coaches prefer) puts him in a throw-ready platform, but senses the oncoming pressure and feels the need to reset despite not being in a position that can be effectively corrected, thus leading to frantic feet and him prematurely opening the gate. In doing so, he completely negates his ability to plant and drive through the throw with his usual level of explosion.
Smith-Schuster’s attempt to manipulate his pacing in the route twice means Darnold has to exhibit patience in order to allow the route to develop. His setup finishes upon Smith-Schuster’s first attempt, thus the ball is not ready to be thrown to maintain the integrity of the route; in turn, this leads to the aforementioned quick reshuffling that eliminates the ideal posture rather than remaining patient with his initial base. The ball is thrown after Smith-Schuster’s second attempt-when it should be-but Darnold has now compromised the necessary transfer of energy through the throw that ultimately leads to the ball hanging in the air. Smith-Schuster has the corner leveraged and provided Darnold with a conceivable amount of room for the ball to be placed.
The theme holds true when Darnold is truly forced to reset. He is noticeably athletic enough to make difficult throws on the move and remain accurate when off-platform, but it becomes a detriment when it happens at a lower clip than his abilities would suggest. Similar to the Penn State throw (process wise) in the link below, Darnold’s pocket work against the Huskies is cringe-worthy with an equal result. He drops to setup to his right, but the edge rusher conquers the leverage battle against the right tackle as a Darnold is forced to create space for himself and avoid a sack by stepping up behind winnable four-on-two protection. Once he does, Darnold begins to declare himself a runner by crouching and taking his initial exit step before the defensive tackle makes an impressive instinctual play to match Darnold’s initial movement.
He reestablishes his platform, but doesn’t have the initial knee bend and active feet required, causing him to completely flip his hips towards the left sideline (despite having his eyes in the middle of the field) before doing the exact same to get them back to the landmark in which his eyes are fixated. This then leads to a floated throw in which Darnold leaves both his feet and sees land middle-left. Ideally, the process should appear reminiscent of former Notre Dame star DeShone Kizer where his eyes and lead foot and lead shoulder work on the same vertical plane throughout the progression. This eliminates wasted movement and allows him to be ready to step into a late throw at a moments notice. Further issues that draw similarities can be seen here and here.
The lengthy windup and unnatural release are two aspects that are oddly comparable to what we saw from Kevin Hogan, and both also operated from a wider-than-normal base that lead to problematic over-striding. Although Darnold completed 67 percent of his 366 pass attempts and never had a QB Rating lower than 139 in any of his 10 starts, the premise of the article is missed throws and a few were the byproduct of these mechanical flaws.
Take this throw against Oregon for example where the Trojans are going to send a tight end on a deep crosser. You’ll notice the funky windup, but the release compensates enough to remain accurate as evidenced by his completion percentage. The issue at hand is the unbalanced, short-armed follow through that looks like such from a still shot. Because there’s a break at Darnold’s elbow that results in his arm ending high across his chest, he can’t finish with an extended follow through that allows for the wrist to fully rotate and snap the end of the throw. The proper action generates the most advantageous amount of velocity and RPMs required to reduce an excessive amount of lift on drive throws at a greater distance, hence why the ball sails.
The other contributing factor is the awkward posture between his follow through and come-to-balance, further intensifying his ability to make this throw as it reduces the amount of momentum a quarterback can transfer through the throw. Ideally, the finished product should look like this.
In regards to over-striding, you’re in trouble when your lead leg is beyond your shoulder at the amount Darnold’s is, disrupting the timing of the weight drive and negating the maximum amount of rotational power one can generate. A repetition like such was found in Carson Wentz’s game with regularity as his rookie season progressed and his struggles during that same time frame can be attributed these issues. Coupled with natural downward trajectory on underneath drive throws creates throws in the dirt like such; occurring on third-and-eight on your opponent’s 33 is less than ideal.
While greatly negative, this article is certainly not an indictment on Sam Darnold. He is an unquestioned talent with the requisite natural traits needed to survive at the next level and an aggressive, confident mindset that very few 19 year old quarterbacks have ever possessed. His first collegiate start came on the road against a ranked Utah team and was largely unflappable in a notably challenging environment before USC put their Rose Bowl hopes on his shoulders against a top 50 defense. However, there is work to be done and expectations to be managed before Darnold is anointed as 2018’s top quarterback.
Nevertheless, the Trojans love their three-man route combos that can stretch the field at all three levels, stress zone defenses and create athlete mismatches down the field, while they aren’t averse to motioning their equally athletic running backs into the slot or along the perimeter to go empty and allow Darnold to work. This team is stacked with uber-talented returners, and with Darnold at the helm, a run at a National Championship is an undoubtedly feasible task.