Sam Darnold praised by Pac-12 opponents for competitiveness, athleticism

Alicia de Artola/Reign of Troy
Alicia de Artola/Reign of Troy /

USC quarterback Sam Darnold drew praise from opposition head coaches and players from around the Pac-12 for his competitiveness, athleticism and play-making ability.

One big takeaway from Pac-12 Media Days 2017: Sam Darnold is very good at football — and the rest of the conference knows it.

Praise for Darnold was universal across the various players and coaches present at the annual media event, but the compliments were also far-ranging and at times contrasting.

Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham noted Darnold’s size, arm strength, mobility, pocket presence and decision-making, “The guy is incredible…He is one of the best, if not the best, quarterbacks in the country.”

That sentiment was echoed by Stanford’s David Shaw, but there was a slight difference of opinion on the inevitability of Darnold’s rise to that level.

“The guy is incredible…He is one of the best, if not the best, quarterbacks in the country.”

Whittingham was the first coach to offer Darnold a scholarship in high school. It was obvious to him that the Trojan quarterback would be a star.

“We knew he was a tremendous athlete. We were very surprised that he hadn’t gotten his opportunity prior to our game [in Week 4],” Whittingham said. “I had not been at their practice to see what’s going on, and I’m not criticizing anybody, but we knew he was a very talented kid.”

On the other hand, new Cal head coach Justin Wilcox, who was USC’s defensive coordinator during Darnold’s redshirt freshman year and saw him work up close, wouldn’t claim such certainty.

“You know, you would love to sit up here and say, oh, yeah, I knew he was going to be like that. Nobody really knows,” Wilcox said. “But he’s a really talented guy and deserves all the praise.”

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UCLA’s contingent didn’t shy away from praising Darnold as a crosstown rival, but head coach Jim Mora and linebacker Kenny Young differed in their enthusiasm for facing Darnold this coming season.

“I love playing against that guy,” Young said.

“He’s fun to watch,” Mora said. “He’s not fun to compete against because he’s tough to get down, and he’s a heck of a competitor.”

Darnold’s elusiveness drew plenty of acclaim in Hollywood this week.

Colorado linebacker Derek McCartney had to watch Darnold from the sidelines last year due to a season-ending injury, but he came away impressed.

“He made it look tough trying to get him down. It didn’t look easy. And that wasn’t just against us that he did that,” McCartney said.

McCartney is right on that score. Darnold gave many defenses fits in 2016, including Oregon’s.

“Going into the game, we knew he was going to be a threat with his legs and his arm so we tried to limit him as much as we could. We tried to keep him in the pocket and tried to have him beat us with his arm,” Duck linebacker Troy Dye said. “He was a little bit more athletic than I assumed.

“Watching film he didn’t look as athletic as he did in person but when he got on the field he was really moving. He’s a great athlete. He’s a great ball player.”

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For Young, something else stood out about Darnold at the Rose Bowl last November.

“He got hit so hard and he just popped up and I’m like ‘man this guy is tough’,” said Young. “He’s a tough guy.”

Incredible, talented, elusive, competitive, athletic, tough, whatever adjectives opponents threw out to describe Darnold, his head coach added another one to the pile.

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“The thing that I’ve been impressed with Sam is his humbleness and humility in the process. We all see his skill set, but how he’s approached this off-season from a work-ethic standpoint and trying to progress as a student of the game, our kids see that,” said Clay Helton.

“Obviously there are some grand expectations for him, but he’s welcomed those. That’s part of being a USC quarterback. That’s why you come to USC. You’re the face of the program and you’re the leader of the program.”

As far as quarterbacks and leaders go, players like Darnold only come around so often. But for opponents of the Trojans, that’s what they’ve come to expect.

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“He makes plays happen and that’s what he’s there to do,” Dye said. “He’s on scholarship for a reason. He’s the starting quarterback for a reason. They don’t just hand that out at the University of Southern California for no reason. They have a great history of quarterbacks. They expect great quarterbacks and that’s what we expect to play against with great competition in the Pac-12.”