There are many expectations for Sam Darnold in year two as the team’s starting quarterback, but none bigger than bringing a title back to USC.
At 1-2, the USC Trojans looked like they were headed toward another so-so season in 2016. Heading into the Utah game, head coach Clay Helton decided to make a change at quarterback, and that decision certainly paid off. After a loss on the road against the Utes, redshirt freshman Sam Darnold led his Trojans to eight straight wins to finish the regular season, clinching a spot in the Rose Bowl.
For Darnold, it was just another step in his football journey. During his high school days, the signal-caller was actually a wide receiver and linebacker, before gaining the starting quarterback job at San Clemente (CA) High School. Once locked in as the starter, Darnold took off, becoming a four-star recruit.
He chose USC over schools like Oregon, Utah and Duke, though then-defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox wanted to bring him in as a linebacker. In his first year on campus, Darnold decided to redshirt, as he was the No. 3 quarterback on the roster behind Cody Kessler and Max Browne.
With Kessler heading to the NFL, it was between Browne and Darnold as to who would start for the Trojans in 2016, and Helton decided to go with Browne over the redshirt freshman.
Looking back, that was a very bad decision, as the Trojans got off to a start that would basically eliminate them from College Football Playoff contention immediately. Darnold played sparingly over the first three games of the season, and when Helton finally pulled the trigger and placed him in the starting lineup, he was ready to take control of the offense.
Darnold did not play badly against Utah in his first start, throwing for over 250 yards, and rushing for a touchdown. The Utes defense was one of the best in the conference in 2016, and the game was on the road, so it was a daunting task to say the least for the young man. The following week, Darnold would toss three touchdowns at home against Arizona State, setting the stage for an incredible comeback season for USC.
In his third career start, Darnold would face the No. 21 Colorado Buffaloes, and once again he played extremely well. For the second consecutive game, Darnold threw three touchdowns, including what would prove to be the game-winner to Tyler Petite at the 8:48 mark in the fourth quarter.
A little over a month later, the youngster would lead the Trojans to their signature regular season win of the year, beating No. 4 Washington on the road.
That win really put Darnold on the map, and let the world know that the USC Trojans were back. USC would finish the regular season out by beating UCLA and Notre Dame, earning a spot in the Rose Bowl to play the Penn State Nittany Lions. All Darnold did in that game was set the Rose Bowl record for touchdown passes (5), and total yards (473), leading his team to a 52-49 victory.
It was the Trojans’ first Rose Bowl appearance in eight years, and some believe that if Darnold had started since Week 1, USC would have been a lock for the College Football Playoff. For his efforts, Darnold became the first freshman to win the Archie Griffin Award, which is given to the player who proves to be the most valuable to his team throughout the season.
The second the season ended for USC, expectations were laid out for Darnold. A favorite to win the Heisman Trophy, the sophomore is on nearly every watch list this season, and the Trojans are a sexy pick to win it all. In addition, some believe there are NFL teams who plan on tanking the season to get Darnold, as he is expected to be the first overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft if he decides to come out early.
When it comes to Darnold, the truth is that he has the potential to be the best quarterback in the history of USC football. Those are very strong words, but the proof is in the play. Not only is he one of the more accurate passers in the country, but when you mix his mobility and quick release, there are very few things he does not do well. He is also a born leader, and his USC teammates are drawn to him, making him a perfect collegiate quarterback.
Playing for USC, especially under center, has always come with extreme expectations, as a good start to the season is going to bring added pressure around a player who just turned 20 years old. The opportunity is right in front of Darnold, however, as the schedule is not daunting for the Trojans this campaign. They open up their season with the Western Michigan Broncos, and outside of a late-season trip to Colorado, the road schedule plays in the Trojans favor.
Last season, starting only 10 games, Darnold threw for over 3,000 yards and 31 touchdowns. While statistics are fantastic, the only thing that matters for the Trojans is getting back to the top of the college football mountain. They finally have the quarterback that can get them there, and bringing home a national title could alleviate some of the pain inflicted when the BCS vacated their 2004 National Championship.
For the Trojans, the 2017 season is going to be about getting back to the Promised Land. They have enough talent on both sides of the ball, and at the position that means the most in football, they may have the best player in the country. Darnold took the world by storm in 2016, and it is scary to think how good he could be in year two.
So what are the expectations for Darnold? USC fans expect him to finish the job, and when you play for the Trojans, that means win the National Championship. All of the individual awards are nice, but USC fans are expecting Darnold and Helton to be on the stage after winning the College Football Playoff National Championship Game, and then maybe he can announce he is returning for his junior season.