Sam Darnold didn’t betray any of his doubts during his first press conference as USC’s starting quarterback. With four days to prepare for his debut as QB1, against Utah on September 23, and with USC’s athlete media-training classes fueling him, he spoke in starter’s platitudes as if he’d been the program’s face for years. The only difference, he assured reporters after that Monday’s practice, was that he’d taken reps with the first team that day. That’s all. He bluntly assessed the situation for redshirt junior Max Browne, the passer he’d just replaced: "It sucks, but it’s a business."
Clay Helton, the school’s fourth head football coach in as many seasons, made the QB switch with USC sitting at the nadir of post–Pete Carroll malaise. The Trojans had been humiliated on national television in a 46-point opening loss to Alabama. Two weeks later, they managed just a single touchdown in a loss at Stanford. Those two defeats sandwiched a win over Utah State that did little to window-dress the team’s 1–2 record. USC, long one of college football’s most storied programs, was off to its worst start in 15 years.
Even though it was just his first full season as the head man, Helton’s seat was growing warmer. Attendance had begun to wane, and nothing the Trojans were doing on the field early in 2016 seemed likely to reignite fan interest. So with the offense struggling to move the ball under Browne, Helton made USC’s first non-injury-related in-season quarterback change since Carson Palmer replaced Mike Van Raaphorst in 1998.
Suddenly, the pressure of returning the program to relevance rested on the 19-year-old Darnold. The redshirt freshman is quiet, often called shy by those closest to him. He didn’t show them in front of the camera, but he had doubts. Not in his abilities, but in whether his demeanor would allow him to succeed in this spot. As "The Man," he asked himself, would he need to be more vocal?
"You definitely think about it as a quarterback," Darnold says. "Oh, do I need to be this guy? Do I need to be the guy who yells at guys?"
But he didn’t change. Not after USC blew a 10-point, fourth-quarter lead in his first start to fall to 1–3. Not after the Trojans became an iron horse, winning their final eight games to complete a remarkable turnaround and earn the Pac-12’s spot in the Rose Bowl, where they’ll face Penn State on January 2.
Under the former four-star recruit, the offense transformed into something resembling a spread. USC upped the tempo and added run/pass options. Darnold’s ability to handle pressure from his situation and opposing defenses alike surprised even his coaches. Four of his first five wins came by more than 20 points. He sparked an upset of then-undefeated Washington, now in the College Football Playoff, on the road in November. He capped the win streak — USC’s longest since Mark Sanchez and Co. won 10 in a row in the 2008 season — by trampling rivals UCLA and Notre Dame. Darnold completed nearly 70 percent of his passes on the year and finished in the top 20 nationally in passing touchdowns (with 26) despite beginning the season as a backup.
Had he not spurred that turnaround, become one of the most exciting young quarterbacks in college football, brought stability to the Helton era, and earned USC a once-unthinkable postseason trip to Pasadena, he wouldn’t be one of the bowl season’s key figures, doing more interviews per day than he can track. Darnold knows this. He knows that just as suddenly as he’s become a star, the lights can again dim. He knows who he is and, maybe more importantly, who he is not.
Jaime Ortiz knew it was serious. The San Clemente High School head football coach had never seen his quarterback sit down on the sideline before. Darnold’s foot throbbed, but he thought it was just a rolled ankle, so he picked himself up and went back in for the last series before the end of the second quarter. At halftime of the third game of his junior year, he found out he’d broken his foot and would miss the rest of the season.
The fracture brought more than physical pain. Darnold didn’t have much tape entering junior year, all-important for recruiting, and now wouldn’t be able to add to it. He’d spent his first year on the freshman team, and a senior had won the quarterback job during Darnold’s sophomore season, so he primarily played linebacker and receiver. He quarterbacked a few games when the senior got hurt, but not enough to fill out his slight body of work as a quarterback prospect.
Though he hadn’t yet built up a full set of offers, a few options remained. Ortiz had a relationship with Utah, where former SCHS quarterback Travis Wilson was then the starter, and the Utes had offered Darnold a scholarship during his sophomore year. USC showed interest in him then, too, but at that time only as a linebacker.
Darnold wasn’t interested in playing defense in college, but appreciated USC’s reaching out. His family has deep athletic roots in Greater Los Angeles. His mom, Chris, and dad, Mike, had played local collegiate volleyball and football, respectively. Dick Hammer, Darnold’s grandfather, played basketball for the Trojans, so USC had always been a big part of Darnold’s life. For as long as Darnold could remember, Mike had driven him 63 miles north on I-5 to the Coliseum for a Trojans football game once per season. In 2004, against Notre Dame, it had started to rain, and the family still laughs about how two Fighting Irish fans lent them their umbrellas.
As a kid, Darnold wore his cardinal-and-gold no. 11 Matt Leinart jersey seemingly everywhere. He tossed a football or baseball with anyone who was home, sometimes late into the night, sometimes agreeing to play pepper with his older sister, Franki, so she would then throw the football with him. Sometimes he impersonated Kobe Bryant on the backyard hoop or Dodgers closer Eric Gagne in the street. From the Darnold family’s front doorstep, you can still see the white garage doors that Claudia, his late neighbor, made him repaint multiple times after errant throws chipped its coat. "There’s no joke about that jersey," Chris says. "He thought he was Matt Leinart."
His throws started to hurt Franki’s hands toward the end of his elementary school years, so she stopped playing catch. Eventually that happened with Chris and Mike too. In high school, Darnold found himself throwing instead to wide receivers at quarterback camps featuring some of the nation’s elite prospects. At one UCLA camp the summer before Darnold’s junior year, Mike remembers, Bruins head coach Jim Mora worked with superstar recruit Josh Rosen while most players, including Darnold, stood off to the side. Darnold thought he was just as good as the eventual Bruins quarterback, though.
"There’s no difference," Mike remembers Sam saying in the car after the camp, comparing himself to the quarterback who would go on to earn the nickname "Chosen Rosen."
Darnold has always treated sports like business, Chris says. Growing up, he minimized and compartmentalized distractions at home and at football. He maintained a small, tight friend group. To prepare for games, he stuck to a comfortable routine, napping on the same black leather sectional at home as Law & Order played in the background before every high school match. In a thick scrapbook chronicling Darnold’s youth, he grins in the mock magazine covers but never cracks a smile in any in-game photos.
In the Coliseum as a young fan, Darnold animatedly booed quarterbacks who threw interceptions. Now on the other side, he shakes his head at similar criticisms that fill his Instagram comments when he makes mistakes. "I’m not trying to fumble," Darnold says. "I’m not trying to throw interceptions."
But before he went from watching games in the Coliseum to playing in them, Darnold was 16, crying because the doctor had said his season was over. "Keep the faith," Mike told him, as he always did when things got tough. Darnold focused on what he could control. He knew some recruiting tape was better than none, so he asked Ortiz to splice his basketball highlights between quarterbacking ones and send them off to colleges.
Quarterback commitments are about timing. The when is often inextricably linked with the where, because once a school has a commitment from one top quarterback to whom it’s made plenty of promises, it rarely benefits anyone to add a competing recruit. Darnold had garnered more interest from top colleges while proving his foot had healed during spring practices his junior year, when Ortiz invited dozens of coaches to SCHS to watch. But the likelihood of landing at Tennessee or Wake Forest, two schools who’d expressed interest, faded when other passers committed there. Darnold worried that Oregon, one of his leading candidates, would be next.
Scott Frost, now the head coach at Central Florida but then the Ducks’ offensive coordinator, had finished the school’s pitch by asking Darnold to commit before the end of his official visit on June 29, 2014, according to Mike (Frost declined to comment for this story). Darnold had told Oregon before arriving that he didn’t want to commit that day for two reasons. One, he prioritized taking his recruitment slow. Two, he had talked to SCHS coaches extensively about committing to a school, not a coach, because people depart and arrive unexpectedly every year. He wanted a college he liked regardless of football, and figuring that out would take time.
"He’s real aware," says Marc Popovich, Darnold’s basketball coach at SCHS. "He deals in reality, not delusional about anything. He’s always been ahead of the curve, weirdly, with that stuff."
Despite initially wanting him as a linebacker, USC remained a place that offered more than football for Darnold. Better still, the Trojans now wanted him on offense, because Helton, then the quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator under head coach Steve Sarkisian, had seen Darnold’s full recovery at a San Clemente spring practice and remembered that SCHS had lost every game without him. Helton wanted to see Darnold throw a USC football — Nike brand, inflated between 12.5 and 13.5 psi — so he invited him up to Los Angeles at the end of June 2014 for a camp. Darnold had a tight schedule with finals and visits, including to Oregon, Duke, and Stanford, lined up over a five-day span. Mike didn’t think it could work. Plus, the Trojans already had a top quarterback recruit committed for the class of 2015. But still, to a Trojans fan like Darnold: It was USC. The family made it fit.
Darnold thinks he might have been the only high school upperclassman among a mostly junior high camp. Helton followed him from drill to drill and was thankful when Sarkisian OK’d offering scholarships to two quarterbacks that year.
Driving into Eugene for his official visit six days later, Darnold followed through on a promise to call Sarkisian before meeting with Oregon. The USC head coach had asked Darnold on the phone not to make a rash decision. Still, leaving Oregon uncommitted meant uncertainty, because the Ducks could pursue another recruit. Darnold and his family liked the school, but Sarkisian’s words had reinforced the young quarterback’s inclination to wait on a decision, so Darnold left Frost’s office without committing.
Six days later, Darnold returned to Oregon for Elite 11, in which 18 high schoolers face off in The Bachelor of quarterback competitions. That USC quarterback commit, Ricky Town, a top recruit with a big arm, was Darnold’s roommate. Darnold flourished at the beginning of the camp, while Town struggled. But by the end of the week, Town finished in the Elite 11 while Darnold was not selected.
One week later, in the weight room at Shorecliffs Middle School, where his mother taught, Darnold made his college decision with his parents and private quarterback coach Bob Bosanko. Bosanko had helped about a half dozen SCHS quarterbacks pick schools over the past decade. Darnold decided Oregon wasn’t an option after Elite 11 quarterback Travis Jonsen committed two days following Darnold’s visit, and Stanford never officially offered even though Darnold hastily rearranged his schedule to fly to one of the school’s camps. "Stanford was really a dream for him at one point," Mike says.
Bosanko wrote Darnold’s finalists — Duke, Utah, and USC — on the top of a grid and listed Darnold’s seven most important considerations down the left side:
1. Postgraduate employment opportunity
3. How soon can I start?
4. Campus life
5. Locker-room atmosphere
7. On-campus stadium
The Trojans received a "1," the top mark, in every category, and Darnold Instagrammed his commitment to USC the next day.
Friends filled the comments, saying they couldn’t wait to watch him on Saturdays. Family and coaches, however, privately wondered if he’d see the field beyond practice. Veteran starter Cody Kessler was entrenched for 2015, and to earn any playing time after that, Darnold would have to usurp Browne, the Trojans’ most established backup quarterback, and beat out Town. But Darnold felt bolstered by what he’d seen from his roommate at Elite 11.
"He had it in his head," Mike says. "‘Ricky Town? Five-star? I can do what he’s doing.’"
It took only one season for the once-imposing quarterback logjam to clear and reveal two contenders. The incumbent Kessler left for the NFL after his college eligibility expired. Town had enrolled a semester early, but wound up transferring to Arkansas before his freshman season; he’s now poised to transfer again. That left redshirt junior Browne and redshirt freshman Darnold to compete for the 2016 starting job.
Darnold made it a tougher decision than anyone expected. But Helton chose Browne, at least in part, he told Darnold’s parents, because Browne was "the veteran." When Helton informed Darnold of his decision, Darnold didn’t despair. He remembered sophomore year of high school, when he’d lost the quarterback job but been called upon anyway.
He stayed ready, but this was the scenario his family had feared. Why did "How soon can I start?" earn a 1 for USC? After redshirting as a USC freshman and dealing with injury and position switches in high school, he’d played quarterback for a full season in just one of the last four years and appeared destined for limited action again.
During his redshirt season, Darnold had come to understand the value in serving on the scout team, but his frustration still built because he wanted to play. Until he could, though, he prepared like the starter. During quarterback meetings, whenever Kessler jotted notes, Darnold did the same in his new notebook. Darnold continued slamming his right foot into the ground before throwing on the run, like Bosanko had shown him in high school, to have better control passing outside the pocket. He impressed USC coaches with speed and mobility while impersonating Oregon’s Vernon Adams Jr. on the scout team. The first-team defense scrimmaged Darnold daily and felt his determination. He shredded the defense USC once wanted him to play for. "He’s basically a service team legend," Helton says.
But when Helton passed on him for Browne in 2016, Darnold felt like that’s all he’d ever be. He believes the yellow noncontact jersey limited what his coaches saw, because some of his strengths, like scrambling and improvisation, come into play after the first hit. Still, those practices acclimated Darnold to the speed of college football, and taught him to slow the game down. On the field, he honed his awareness. Even as a teenager, he’d always known when people were sneaking up on him, to the disappointment of his friends. They laughed and called him paranoid, but that vision proved useful at San Clemente when he slipped by would-be tacklers on the field and found cutters from the high post on the court.
"You know when you’re walking around in an empty street by yourself?" Darnold says. "You can kind of feel when people are around you. It’s kind of the same thing, just a lot louder and a lot more people."
Helton decided to switch quarterbacks on the flight to LAX after the Stanford loss. He spoke to Browne and Darnold privately, as he had when Browne won the competition during the summer. Darnold called his parents, who cried on speaker phone, and texted his best friend, Nick Crankshaw. The change became public the next morning.
It’s impossible to know how USC’s season would’ve unfolded if Darnold had been the starter from the opener. But he helped a team that started 1–3 return to relevancy and finish the regular season inside the top 10. All of his success this season makes his coach think back to the fall of Darnold’s senior season at SCHS. With Helton and offensive assistant Tee Martin there to see the USC commit, Darnold went 13-for-13 passing and tied the single-game school record with five touchdowns in the first half. That said more about Darnold than Helton realized at the time, or at the beginning of the 2016 season.
"Now," Helton says, "I look back and know that no moment has ever been too big for him."
Ideal quarterbacks, Darnold believes, are like Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers: type-A transcendent leaders loudly catalyzing the team and demanding perfection. Darnold isn’t like that, and he’s OK with it. He knows that he can find ways to lead and hold teammates accountable without being particularly vocal.
"I’m not going to be a guy who makes some motivational speech in front of the team," Darnold says. "I’m not going to yell at anyone. That’s not who I am. If I did that, I’m sure I’d get some looks like, ‘Dude what are you doing?’ … It’s not so much of an ego thing for me."
But Darnold was initially less sure of himself after becoming the starter. Under the cool exterior he presented at his first press conference, questions loomed. He wasn’t the only one to identify the challenges: "The next evolution Darnold must make," went one Los Angeles Times story, "is becoming a more vocal leader."
He went to Helton, asking what he should do. "Be yourself," Helton responded. Darnold had been on campus for more than a year and Helton, Martin, and new quarterbacks coach Tyson Helton, Clay’s younger brother, knew what Darnold brought. They weren’t worried. Neither were Darnold’s teammates.
"If you know this team," offensive tackle Zach Banner says, "you know we’ve got plenty of rah-rah guys. I’m one of them. Sam’s all set."
Darnold is all set in part because of the example his parents have set.
When Darnold’s parents were dating in late 1993, they were riding bikes through San Clemente when they saw a house with a "For Sale" sign and strewn-about motorcycle parts in the front yard. They knew they couldn’t afford much. Not long after, they found out Chris was pregnant earlier than expected, so they moved up their planned wedding and bought the house. They didn’t see a foreclosed-upon meth lab; they saw gnarly ocean views and potential. They saw a beginning. They gutted the place, adding Spanish tiling and clearing the trees out back. They had a baby girl, then, three years later, a baby boy. They tacked on an addition.
Chris taught middle school phys ed. Mike moved from construction to medical gas plumbing and worked long hours, sometimes going in at 2 a.m. The pair worked diligently over the years, spending time off with their children at home or at the beach or at sporting events, which increased in competitiveness (and distance) as the kids grew up.
Darnold recalls seeing his father seated at the kitchen table one morning, jean knees ripped up, shirt filthy, recently home from one of those shifts that blurred the difference between late and early.
A sewage pipe had needed unblocking. The boy grimaced. The image of his dad there at the table stuck in Darnold’s head on the drive to lift weights before school. Both parents, he thought, always preferred actions to words.
Colin Cowherd had praised him, so the Utah game wasn’t a total loss. The Fox Sports 1 host had said that despite falling to the Utes, USC had finally found its quarterback. Darnold likes knowing what people are saying about him. He won’t click on headlines about turnovers, but he does read what people send him and, once in a great while, Googles himself. But he loves Cowherd. Darnold is a huge fan of his show, The Herd, listening whenever he can and catching up when he can’t by scrolling through the show’s Facebook page. "His show is fact before opinion," Darnold says, "which I think is really important in media nowadays."
The buzz spread as Darnold lit up opponents. More than 350 yards against Arizona State and Colorado. Five passing touchdowns apiece against Arizona and Cal. Impressive pocket awareness against then-undefeated Washington, evading Chris Petersen’s extra pressure to upset the Huskies, 26–13. His offensive line hasn’t allowed multiple sacks in any of Darnold’s nine starts. Darnold finished with the nation’s 10th-best passer rating.
"One of the best things about him is his anticipation," Helton says. "Whether to get the ball out or pull it down and create. A lot of that comes from his first fall here."
During that fall, Kessler threw nearly one-third of his passes toward star wideout JuJu Smith-Schuster and "other targets felt overlooked," noted the Los Angeles Times’ Zach Helfand. With Darnold, attempts to tight ends have increased considerably from 2015 and targets to receivers other than Smith-Schuster have jumped to 76 percent. Knowing to spread the ball around, Franki suspects, comes from playing those other positions in high school.
"He’s excellent at reading people," Popovich, his high school basketball coach, says. "He always knew how to get through to his teammates. Like, this guy just needs an atta-boy; this guy needs more of a pick-me-up."
Early in the third quarter against UCLA, Darnold threw a 6-yard touchdown to De’Quan Hampton, one of 11 USC receivers to catch a pass that day. On the sideline, his first read, Daniel Imatorbhebhe, approached, asking, Darnold recalls, Man, were you looking at me? I was wide open!
"You know how receivers are," Darnold says, laughing. "They’re going to say they’re wide open every single play, which Daniel was, but he came out of his break too late."
The freshman tight end had turned a moment later than Darnold expected, when the QB was already onto his second read. Darnold explained that to Imatorbhebhe and then listened to his tight end. The two, Darnold thinks, had a better understanding after that. "I’m not saying, ‘I’m right, you’re wrong,’" Darnold says. "It’s more of, ‘Let’s have a conversation.’ That’s how it should be when you’re trying to get people on the same page."
Darnold’s next completion went to Imatorbhebhe for 15 yards.
Not one of the 13 people milling about USC’s Heritage Hall in late November looks up when Darnold walks in wearing his favorite brown, size-15 slippers, which Chris got at Red Wing four years ago. That’s fine by him.
"It’s fun being a football player," Darnold says, "because you have your helmet on most of the time. People don’t necessarily recognize you, like if you were a famous basketball player. That’s pretty cool."
But that’s changing. Gone are the days of walking uninterrupted from the locker room to the team bus. Four days prior, Bruins quarterback Rosen sat out with an injury as Darnold played the star. The UCLA camp they’d attended together seemed so long ago. The Los Angeles Times wondered: "Has USC’s Sam Darnold surpassed UCLA’s Josh Rosen as city’s top QB?"
Darnold makes it past the ring of trophies and the receptionist’s desk before a father and son notice the redhead and rush over.
"Hey, Sam, mind taking a picture?" asks the father. Darnold obliges. The phone makes a camera’s shutter sound four times.
"Good luck on Saturday," the dad says. On the way out, the kid stops at Heritage Hall’s center trophy ring. There are six Heisman Trophy platforms and five Heisman Trophies, a shrine to some of Darnold’s heroes: Leinart’s Heisman sits next to the empty platform where Reggie Bush’s since-vacated trophy used to be.
"Dad," the kid says in a hushed voice, "he might be there some day."
"Yeah," the dad says, "well, we’ll see."
Four days later, Darnold stepped onto the field in the Coliseum on the first Saturday after Thanksgiving, the Trojans starting quarterback against storied rival Notre Dame. Mike, sitting with the other underclassmen parents 30 rows behind the Fighting Irish bench, couldn’t help laughing as it started to drizzle.
Since Darnold was born, it has rained in Southern California throughout the Notre Dame–USC game exactly twice: in 2004, when the father and son watched Leinart lead the Trojans to victory, and 12 years later, with the father again missing an umbrella, but this time watching his son take the place of the quarterback he once idolized.
The story doesn’t end there, because it can’t, and Darnold knows this. He knew it at that first press conference: Cheers are conditional. He knows the ultimate truth: Fans want wins. He knows because, not long ago, he was one of them.
Simply averting disaster this season would have been a success, but Darnold went and won the house-money lotto. He hasn’t faced national pressure. Not yet. That will soon change. Regardless of the Rose Bowl result, USC will likely enter next season with hype worthy of its program.
"It’s all fine and dandy being the quarterback at USC," Darnold says. "It sounds really nice. But the bottom line is if you don’t perform, people aren’t going to like you."
But he has performed. His quiet approach has been validated, at least so far. Even if it hadn’t been, though, Darnold isn’t sure if he would have, or could have, changed.
Fourteen years ago, Darnold’s parents wanted to send him to school, but he’d just turned 5 in June and would’ve been the youngest kid in kindergarten. "Sam is ready," they thought. Yet they worried because he hardly ever talked. They asked a family friend who was a teacher to assess him. He knew enough to succeed, she determined, and he could speak well enough on his own but often let his sister talk for him. The teacher knew then what his parents, coaches, teammates, and college football fans nationwide have come to learn.
"Oh, he’s quiet," the teacher said, "but he’ll be just fine."
An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated the number of times it has rained during a USC–Notre Dame game during Sam Darnold’s life. It has rained throughout the game twice, but has rained for part of the game more than twice.