Could Sam Darnold be USC's best NFL quarterback? Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart optimistic
Carson Palmer experiences a mix of emotions when he thinks of Sam Darnold.
Palmer, now retired after 15 NFL seasons, has traveled virtually every path that Darnold’s football journey could lead. When the draft begins Thursday night, Darnold could become the first USC quarterback selected first overall since Palmer had that distinction in 2003. Palmer can’t help but recall the pressure when the Bengals anointed him their franchise savior and knows Darnold will face the same expectations. But Palmer, a three-time Pro Bowler who ranks 12th in league history for both passing yards (46,247) and touchdowns (294), believes Darnold can enjoy similar success.
“All the hype he’s getting is well deserved, and I believe he should be the first quarterback taken — without a doubt,” Palmer told USA TODAY Sports. “He has a chance to be not good, but great. I’m excited to see him play. I’m nervous for him, and excited for him.
"He’s a great kid — and humble and hungry and excited to work, and excited about the opportunity — and those are some of the characteristics that make quarterbacks great.”
Darnold and Palmer belong to a Trojan quarterback fraternity that has produced many highly touted prospects. Matt Leinart (2006) and Mark Sanchez (2009) followed Palmer as top-10 picks. Matt Cassel, John David Booty, Matt Barkley and Cody Kessler went in later rounds. However, none managed to translate college success into admirable NFL careers. Even as accomplished as Palmer is, he only went 1-3 in postseason. (No USC quarterback has ever started and won on Super Sunday ... though UCLA, Stanford and Cal products have all hoisted the Lombardi Trophy.)
That reflects difficulty teams face in properly projecting, drafting and developing passers, and the players' challenges adapting to the pro ranks, according to Palmer.
“It’s a first-round quarterback thing, not a USC thing,” he said.
NFL Network draft guru Mike Mayock agrees.
“You can't really knock the individual kid for failures of other players in his program,” Mayock said last week. “Sam Darnold is a completely different kid.
"They all have different coaches that are asking them to do different things. … I don't think the recent failures of USC quarterbacks will hurt (Darnold) at all.”
But why are those close to Darnold so convinced he'll end the streak of USC disappointments?
The 6-3, 221-pounder possesses all the requisite physical tools. But Darnold's instincts could elevate him.
“You know how people talk about extending the play? A lot of guys will make somebody miss in the pocket, make somebody else miss and find a check-down — or make somebody miss and throw the ball away to save a sack,” Palmer said.
“But he’s got the rare ability to buy time in the pocket and buy time with success. ... He has such a knack and great peripheral vision, and he’s extremely accurate. That’s stuff you can’t coach.”
Leinart won the Heisman Trophy in 2004 but only started 18 NFL games despite being Arizona's first rounder in 2006. Now a Fox college football analyst, he concurred with Palmer's assessment of Darnold.
“Sam’s game is different from any other quarterback in this draft,” Leinart told USA TODAY Sports, likening Darnold’s ability to extend plays to that of Tony Romo or Ben Roethlisberger. Like them, Darnold evades defenders with the objective of making downfield plays rather than running.
As for handling expectations and media obligations in the NFL — about 40% of the job, according to Palmer — Darnold shouldn't experience a huge adjustment.
“There’s no pressure like USC," said Palmer. "You walk off the field at practice, and there’s 40 members of the media on a daily basis. Post-game, there’s real NFL-like press conferences. You don’t get that kind of exposure at many other schools.”
Playing in Los Angeles, for a Trojans program that still generates more interest than the relocated Rams or Chargers, brings not only intense scrutiny but distractions. But Palmer described Darnold as a kid who never felt drawn to the limelight and plays for love of the game instead of fame.
“Being from USC and being able to have the Hollywood life, and he chose to turn all that down and focus on football," Palmer said of Darnold, and that will serve him well for the next level.”
Darnold himself said that approach was by design.
“It was about surrounding myself with the best people possible,” he told USA TODAY Sports.
"It trained me really well for being a potential franchise quarterback for a team. I’m definitely ready for it, but obviously I’m still going to continue to learn and grow. There’s always room to learn.”
A story told by Leinart best reflects the grounded persona Darnold seems to have.
Three weeks into the 2016 season, USC coach Clay Helton benched junior Max Browne and turned the job over to Darnold, then a redshirt freshman. He went into a hostile environment at Utah and completed 69% of his passes for 253 yards, rushed for a touchdown and didn't commit a single turnover. But the Trojans lost 31-27, and that weighed more heavily on Darnold than anything else.
So he reached out to Leinart, owner of two national championships and a 37-2 record at USC.
“We really had not had any dialogue before that," said Leinart, "and I thought that said a lot about him. This is a kid, 19 years old, thrown into the fire, on the road, plays great and the team loses. And all he wants — as he asked in the text — was, ‘How can I be great? How can I help this team be great again? What do I need to do to be a leader?’
"That said a lot about Sam.”
Darnold still hasn’t stopped texting or calling Leinart, Palmer — both hope he winds up in a positive NFL teaching environment, encouraging him not to ease his quest for greatness — and others for advice.
“He wants it,” Leinart added, “and he’s not afraid to ask, ‘What do I need to work on? I have a problem fumbling the ball. What do I need to do to fix it?’ That’s Sam.”
Contributing: Lorenzo Reyes
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