Scouting the Pac-12: USC

nfl's picture

Tony Pauline

Draft Analyst Writer

When it comes to USC, the narrative centers around Sam Darnold, then everyone else. The redshirt sophomore is set to become the program's latest first-round quarterback and the first since Mark Sanchez in 2009. But do all the hype and accolades assure he’s a shoe-in at the next level?  

For the past few months, we’ve heard everything on Sam Darnold from "He'll be the best quarterback to come out of USC” to “He'll be as good as Andrew Luck.” In many arenas, Darnold has already been anointed the first pick of the 2018 NFL Draft.

Is this a foregone conclusion? Not even close in my opinion.

Darnold is a terrific college quarterback with exceptional next-level potential.

He’s an exciting playmaker with a great arm as well as the athleticism to dazzle when he runs with the ball. He’s quick in all aspects of the game and has an explosive release, fires the ball through tight windows and easily drives passes down field. 

Darnold easily gets outside the pocket and effectively passes on the move. He’s also gifted carrying the ball and picks up a lot of yardage with his legs.

Yet despite his electrifying play on the college field, there are a lot of red flags projecting him to the next level. Or at the very least, there are aspects of his game which make me believe there’s a good amount of downside and risk attached to Darnold.

His fundamentals leave a lot to be desired, especially his footwork -- he often releases passes off his back foot. Darnold also shows the propensity to put the ball up for grabs, especially down the field. At times on film, it seems he was just heaving the ball downfield and hoping for the best. 

His accuracy and pass placement also need significant improvement, and Darnold doesn’t compare to crosstown rival Josh Rosen in this department.

Oftentimes I found myself noting that Darnold's completions were better catches by his receivers than throws delivered by the quarterback himself. I had a similar feeling breaking down another underclassman quarterback not long ago -- Johnny Manziel.

Speaking of Manziel, if I had to compare Darnold to another quarterback it would be a cross between a bigger, stronger-armed version of Manziel and Jay Cutler.

During the 2006 combine, I sat upstairs in the old RCA Dome watching the quarterbacks and receivers work out with a handful of people, which included newly hired St. Louis Rams head coach Scott Linehan and former general manager Charley Armey.

While Cutler was on the field throwing, Linehan described him as a “sandlot quarterback,” telling everyone Cutler would be a very good NFL signal caller but one teams would have to endure a lot of interceptions from.

Linehan’s assessment was correct, and that’s my opinion of Darnold at this point -- a sandlot quarterback in the Manziel mold. He possesses elite physical skills but is a passer likely to toss more than his fair share of interceptions on Sundays.

If he enters the 2018 draft, will Darnold be the highest-rated quarterback and the first pick of the event? Last March I wrote an article stating that Josh Allen of Wyoming is my preference for both accolades, and I’m sticking with it.  

Washington, the class of the Pac-12, is not on USC's regular-season schedule this year, although the teams could end up facing off in the conference title game. As a result, the toughest test of the year for Darnold could come early when the Trojans host Stanford on Sept. 9.

In the running game, Darnold will find himself handing the ball to Ronald Jones II more often than not.

The talented ball carrier lacks great size but is super quick and has a burst as well as a penchant for picking up big chunks of yardage from the line of scrimmage. I don’t think Jones will be a feature runner at the next level, but rather a productive situational skill player.

USC

Grade

Rnd

Full Name

Pos

#

Year

4.04

1st

Sam Darnold

QB

14

3So

3.64

3rd

Ronald Jones II

RB

25

3Jr

3.62

3rd

Iman Marshall

CB

8

3Jr

3.53

4th

Marvell Tell III

S

7

3Jr

3.48

4-5

Rasheem Green

DE

94

3Jr

3.42

5th

Uchenna Nwosu

OLB

42

4Sr

3.38

6th

Nicholas Falah

C

74

5Sr

3.37

6th

Porter Gustin

OLB

45

3Jr

3.35

6th

Cameron Smith

ILB

35

3Jr

3.19

FA

Viane Talamaivao

G

60

4Sr

3.04

FA

Steven Mitchell

WR

4

4Sr

3.03

FA

Malik Dorton

DE

44

4Jr

3.00

FA

Deontay Burnett

WR

80

3Jr

2.94

FA

Christopher Hawkins

S

4

5Sr

2.80

FA

Josh Fatu

DT

98

4Sr