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Hollywood Hype

Sam Darnold and Josh Rosen hadn’t faced each other until USC’s win over UCLA on Saturday, but they’ve been compared by pundits and fans for months, and will likely continue their reluctant rivalry until they go to the pros

Sam Darnold and Josh Rosen Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Scouts for 20 of the 32 NFL teams walked into the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum press box with the same players in mind. Wearing their team-branded polos, the men clutched ink-riddled notebooks, pored over the color-coded spreadsheets on their laptops, and kept pairs of binoculars by their assigned seats. They talked among each other before the game began; they were all here for the same reason: to watch Sam Darnold and Josh Rosen.

For those in the college football world, and those who paid attention from the next level, the meeting on a cool Saturday night in Los Angeles between the two top quarterback talents of the future was long overdue.

It was a matchup between the the prodigy talent and the late-blooming upstart. The one known to have “no filter” and the one without anything to say. The polished pocket passer and the raw, dynamic, mobile phenom. Until now, the duo hadn’t faced off in real life. They’d only been pitted against each other in countless mock drafts and extended sports bar arguments. When the two finally found each other on the field, USC edged UCLA 28–23 in a 60-minute snapshot of all the chatter that has surrounded the quarterbacks for months. Darnold emerged with the win, but Rosen came away with the more impressive stat line: 421 passing yards on 52 attempts, three touchdowns, and one interception. Darnold threw for 264 yards on 28 attempts. He also had a pick.

Yet in a game that was supposed to provide answers, there were none. Too bad for the scouts.

Outside the visiting locker room, underneath the makeshift press conference tent, Josh Rosen, visibly frustrated, ran his hand over his face. “We just want to win a game,” he said of his 5-6 team that, less than 12 hours later, would announce the firing of head coach Jim Mora. Rosen’s rhetoric was the same throughout the presser until he was asked about facing off against Darnold. “He played great, he was able to be really efficient.”

“It’s pretty interesting because we’re not technically battling against one another,” Darnold said after the game. The two know the drill by now. Even if they are part of a friendly group text with other quarterbacks or have seen each other at camps over the years, they know they’re being constantly compared with each other. When five scouts were asked by NFL.com’s Daniel Jeremiah this month who they would rather take between Rosen and Darnold, all of them said Darnold. But none of them had a clear reason for their pick.

“They’re competing against an expectation that’s ever-growing,” Pac-12 Networks analyst and former quarterbacks coach Yogi Roth says. “They’re different guys. They’re different personalities. They’re different football minds, and I mean, they’re both really young. Josh was first on the scene; and with Sam, the eyeballs on him came a little bit later in his career, but they came with higher immediate expectations.”

For Rosen, talk has followed him ever since he stood out at St. John Bosco High as the top quarterback in his class. For Darnold, the hype found him last season, when he led a 1–3 USC team to a nine-game winning streak and a dramatic Rose Bowl victory as a redshirt freshman.

Darnold’s profile skyrocketed. At the NFL combine in March, he was marked as the no. 1 pick of the future. Over the summer, Darnold was crowned as the Heisman heir apparent and was plastered on magazine covers and discussed in every NFL draft TV spot. Rosen, meanwhile, spent the offseason in New York City, scouting business and finance internships, and at the Elite 11 camp as a counselor to younger quarterbacks.

“This offseason, all Josh heard was ‘Sam, Sam, Sam’ — how he’s now the guy billed as the no. 1 prospect, not just in L.A., but the no. 1 quarterback, period,” says Greg Biggins, a CBS national recruiting analyst. “Josh said, ‘Yeah, I heard all about Sam, it pisses me off, I want to be the top guy.’”

The talk around young athletes always becomes increasingly toxic during draft season. Little context is given to their respective situations, outright claims are made without knowledge, and clichéd conjectures are treated as damning analysis for how a player will pan out in the NFL. With Rosen and Darnold, the nitpicking has already begun. With Rosen specifically, analysts have claimed that he’s too smart for his own good (Rosen once admitted this was true, but also said that that’s what made him talented) or that he doesn’t care enough about football. Of course, part of that fodder has been provided by Rosen himself.

“I don’t know if I truly love football right now,” Rosen told Biggins the summer before his senior year at Bosco. “I’m playing because I’m good, and it’s opening up doors.”

The former tennis prodigy wanted to go back to the courts instead of playing more football in the spring. So he did. Rosen, who hadn’t played competitively in four years, went on to make the state semifinals, but as one of the nation’s top football prospects, the rumors and labels of Rosen’s apathy soon followed. Those around him say this is a reductive narrative; they say he’s focused but understands that there is more to life than football.

“Josh is a guy whose mind is probably a lot smarter than people in the coaching profession,” Roth says. “He’s got a different way he looks at life, he’s an analytical thinker, he’s a critical thinker, his cognitive skills are off the charts, so, when you get to know that, you learn that this guy is a different cat.”

Just four plays into UCLA’s first offensive drive Saturday, Rosen slipped a play-action pass past the USC defense, hitting receiver Jordan Lasley 53 yards downfield. The pass wouldn’t count. Offensive lineman Boss Tagaloa was penalized as an ineligible receiver downfield. The Bruins punted four plays later. It was a frustrating microcosm of Rosen’s three-year tenure in Westwood.

“[UCLA] probably doesn’t have a single offensive lineman or receiver, the last two years, who would play at USC,” says Biggins.

But on the next UCLA possession, Rosen threw exactly the same pass on the same play. The result was different: This time, the Bruins moved 41 yards down the field, and there was no penalty. UCLA, much like it had done all season, tried to keep the pocket pristine, but Rosen was still sacked four times in the game — one of those for a lost fumble.

This is Rosen’s biggest advantage: Give him space and a couple of seconds of your time, and he’ll reward you with a dime. In situations where he’s allowed to operate, his genius translates to pinpoint accuracy and the natural dissection of defenses. The same genius that causes him to clash with authority may make him into the best quarterback of his class.

Pick several pairings of plays from Saturday night, and you can see the difference between Darnold and Rosen. Late in the first quarter on a fourth-and-10, Rosen dropped back and was rushed by linebacker Uchenna Nwosu. Rosen stood upright, frozen in the pocket, but was undeterred by the incoming pressure. He didn’t elude the defender or try to spin away like Darnold would have. Instead, he threw a laser to his receiver just before he was crushed in the collapsing pocket. The completion moved the chains.

“Rosen, he zips the ball in, he’s very confident in his arm, and he also reads the hell out of coverages,” USC safety Marvell Tell said. “He made the defensive-back group work.”

Halfway through the second quarter, Darnold provided his own take on the same situation. With a free-running lineman headed his way on second down, Darnold looked toward a receiver on his left before pivoting to his right and escaping the pressure, throwing a dart on the run toward Ronald Jones II for a first down. Later in the half, he emerged from pressure in a two-step move, funneling his physical momentum into a perfect one-footed throw to a triple-covered receiver.

In the press box, every NFL scout pushed back their rolling chair to gaze at the TV above them. They turned to each other, woo-ing loudly, and chuckling at themselves. As polished as Rosen is, that is the throw that makes Darnold’s ceiling so appetizing.

Darnold had thrown a mind-numbing pick to stall a drive in the same quarter, and has 12 interceptions this season, but that throw (much like the one to tie the Rose Bowl nearly 12 months ago) vindicated every piece of propagandic love and hype Darnold had received.

“You can’t teach Sam’s innate ability to move around, improvise, and make plays when all kinds of chaos is going around you. That’s just instinctive,” Biggins says. “He has a Brett Favre recklessness to him.”

Seat 249 in the press box was reserved for a staffer from the Saskatchewan Roughriders.

The scout from the Canadian Football League was here to do his job, but the mere designation of that spot served as a cruel reminder of where a prospect’s future could be should he not find a place in the NFL.

The bust potential for both Darnold and Rosen seems slim. But that’s also how it felt for Ryan Leaf, JaMarcus Russell, and Andre Ware. Vince Young was drafted third in 2006 and spent only six years in the league before failing to engineer a comeback in the CFL just this season. Good college quarterbacks seldomly thrive in the pros. That has never seemed more obvious than it has during this NFL season where most teams have struggled to find even serviceable starters. Darnold and Rosen present an intriguing case on how very different styles could either translate to the next level or flop amid sky-high expectations.

“With Josh, so much depends on the system for him, whereas Sam, I think he won’t be a bust because he can do so much in any offense,” Biggins says. “I think if Josh goes to an NFL team with some talent, I think he’s going to make a big leap, and people are going to say, ‘Oh my God, Josh is actually pretty good.’ Well, yeah. He always was.”

On Saturday, Rosen proved that with every successful throw. And Darnold stayed himself with every reckless trip outside the pocket that more often than not worked in his favor. For one game, even with scouts at 20 press box seats, the NFL audition was more about appreciation than projection.

“He’s the best quarterback I’ve ever played against. Not even close. By far,” USC safety Chris Hawkins said of Rosen after Saturday’s game. He paused and grinned slightly. “Not including the one at our practices, of course.”