USC’s Sam Darnold came into the season as a strong Heisman contender.
An upset loss and 8 interceptions later (one shy of his total from all of last season), Darnold seems like a long shot for the award.
But now NFL scouts are questioning his draft stock, which seemed to be lock at top-3.
Darnold is somewhat mired in a sophomore slump, and NFL evaluators now believe he could use another year of development.
From Sports Illustrated:
USC’s Sam Darnold looked like crap on Friday night at Washington State. He threw for 164 yards after crossing the 200-yard threshold in each of his first 14 starts. He fell below 60 percent completions for just the second time as a starter (he was at 57.1 percent against Texas on Sept. 16), and in Pullman was well below that mark (51.7). He didn’t throw a touchdown pass for the first time since his first start.
And the truth is, that this wasn’t just the stats. Darnold really struggled, as the Trojans’ 13-game win streak, dating back to the quarterback’s second start, was snapped.
“He has a slight hitch, a wind-up in his throw, and he does stare down receivers,” said one veteran evaluator. “He’s still learning to read defenses. This is a young kid. Not ready for primetime yet. He has the tools, but he’s too inconsistent, and the hype doesn’t help him either. Overall, he has a lot of ability but he’s just not there yet.”
Maybe we all got ahead of ourselves last month—I’ll raise my hand on that one. Darnold is 20, and will still be 20 on the day of the 2018 NFL draft. This was the first year he’d entered the season as a collegiate starter, he lost his No. 1 receiver (now-Steeler JuJu Smith-Schuster) and three All-Pac-12 linemen (the Giants’ Chad Wheeler and Cleveland’s Zach Banner at tackle, and Chiefs practice squad guard Damien Mama) to the NFL.
Now that the hype train has finally slowed down, I talked to a number of NFL coaches and scouts who watched him play on Friday night—though this was before they’ve really broken down the tape—to try and get an idea of what the 20-17 road loss meant for Darnold’s stock.
The first thing that came up was what the above scout mentioned, how Darnold needs better discipline in not staring down the receiver he’s going to. The best example came on his interception early in the second quarter, when Darnold took the snap, immediately looked to his left at Josh Imatorbhebhe, and stayed there long enough for Washington State corner Sean Harper to undercut the receiver.
Second, in the Washington State game, Darnold’s eyes dropped. Those three linemen the Trojans lost from 2016? By the end of Friday night they were down three more, and more than one evaluator noticed that Darnold clearly didn’t trust the guys protecting him. As a result, he had happy feet for much of the night, looked to run more (a career-high nine rushing attempts), and missed throws he usually doesn’t. And, again, he was caught looking at the rush, most notably on the sack-fumble that clinched the win for the hosts.
Third, Darnold forces throws. Scouts believe it’s happening more this year for three reasons: (1) he’s hyper-competitive; (2) he has a deep belief in his physical ability; and (3) with a young team around him, he knows he has to be really good. That, of course, is not unlike where Jameis Winston was during his final college season, during which he, like Darnold, had a young team around him.
Now, the good news is that a lot of this is fixable. He can, and will, be coached on his eye discipline, which has been fine in the past. He can certainly learn to protect the ball better, and the coaches can work on getting him easy completions so he doesn’t feel the need to be a hero on every down. Also, it’s USC, so even if the team is young, it’s talented, and with experience that should show.
The main thing here, though, is that this isn’t unusual. The fact that Deshaun Watson had 35 starts at Clemson—more than twice as many as Darnold has now—matters. By the time he declared for the draft, Watson had been faced with a lot of different challenges, the kind that Darnold’s working through now.
“Sometimes, it looks like he’s trying to do it all himself,” said a veteran personnel director. “But that’s just youth.”
So how about this? Let’s wait and see it how plays out. Darnold will have a decision to make on whether he’ll stay in school or go to the NFL—which I’ve heard could be impacted by which teams, and coaches, have high picks in April—after the season. By then, we should know a bunch more about where he is in his development.
And all of that gives him plenty of time, including possibly the 2018 season, to work his issues out.
Darnold is still a great talent. He has ideal size, mobility, arm strength, accuracy, and pocket presence. But he’s picked up some bad habits this year.
He’s young, so there’s plenty of time to iron out the kinks. If he decides to leave early for the draft, he’ll still very likely be a high pick, but it could stifle his long-term development.
There’s still plenty of time this season for Darnold to win back the scouts.