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How Basketball Helped USC’s Sam Darnold Become College Football’s QB of the Moment

After a meteoric freshman season, the Trojans star enters this fall as the Heisman Trophy favorite and the projected no. 1 NFL draft pick. His success—and style—is largely a product of his basketball roots.

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The shot still haunts him.

It was the same one Sam Darnold had dreamed about making every time he would go out to his backyard as a kid, the one from that corner spot created by the edge of the yard’s Jacuzzi and the neighbor’s fence. There he would launch shots at the old, worn-down hoop that was backed up against the wall of his San Clemente, California, home, while his dad, Mike, or one of his best friends would rebound the ball. Mike was happy to play the role. His friends, former basketball teammate Nick Crankshaw and current football teammate Jake Russell, sometimes found themselves stationed underneath the basket because when Sam went to that spot and began to shoot, he’d rarely miss.

Darnold grew up a diehard Lakers fan and NBA enthusiast. He would watch hours of games and then imitate star players’ shooting motions. “Sam used to pretend he was Kobe all the time,” his mom, Chris, says. “He liked doing the Dirk shot, where he would fade away from the basket,” says Russell. “If you told him, ‘Shoot like Kevin Durant,’ he could do his stroke,” Crankshaw says, before adding: “It would go in, too.”

During those backyard shooting sessions, Darnold dreamed of playing college basketball, so it made sense that he most often imitated one of the game’s most successful sharpshooters: J.J. Redick. Three. Two. One. Darnold would count down in his head. Jump. Shoot. Make. Repeat.

On a March night in 2015 at San Clemente High School, during what would be the final game of his senior season, Darnold had to make that oft-practiced shot one more time. His Tritons were trailing Tustin High by seven points with 35 seconds remaining, and Darnold’s team promptly stole the ball twice. The first time, it led to Darnold making a pull-up 3 that cut Tustin’s lead to four. The second time, a teammate got fouled and sank both free throws to slice the visitors’ advantage to two. Tustin missed a layup on the ensuing possession, and San Clemente came down with the rebound. Head coach Marc Popovich called a timeout with 11.7 seconds left.

Darnold remembers the sequence vividly. “It was a double screen action. A guy in the post, a guy in the corner, a guy on the wing, the point guard, and then me on the other wing. I went down, as if I was going to run a cross to get a double screen the other way, but I came back around, the big guy sets a screen, and I end up getting a wide-open 10-foot jumper and just … ”

He pauses and makes a faux shooting motion with his arms.

“Fuckin’ alligator arms, left it so short.”

As the shot kissed off the front lip of the rim, Darnold collapsed on the ground in disappointment and disbelief. He would bid farewell to the sport he grew up loving with a knot in his throat.

When Yogi Roth watches the tape, he sees Darnold taking a snap out of the shotgun against Washington on the road. He sees Darnold dropping back, eyes darting from target to target while instinctively avoiding a lunging defender. He sees Darnold keeping his balance and firing downfield to wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster for a first down. The play runs again. Now, as Darnold moves out of the pocket, Roth sees a combo guard directing the fast break, using his handle and body control to cut through a zone defense before making a move toward the rim or dishing to a cutting teammate.

“When he jumps through the lane, splitting a zone, it’s the same thing as sliding away from a tackle and inside of a blitzing outside linebacker,” says Roth, a Pac-12 Network football analyst and former quarterbacks coach. “The movement of him being able to play off-balance, to me, is all basketball.”

There are multiple plays from last season in which Roth saw Darnold make decisions in the blink of an eye. He possesses an unflinching ability to read and react, and the athleticism to move as fast as he thinks. After backing up Max Browne for the first three games of last fall, Darnold took over as USC’s starting quarterback in Week 4 and went on to throw for 3,086 yards with 31 touchdowns and nine interceptions, leading the Trojans to a 9-1 record and an improbable Rose Bowl win. Roth says he hasn’t seen another college player with this combination of skills. Skills that were born and bred on the hardwood long before they made it to the football field.

USC’s Sam Darnold

“It’s almost like if you had a string of dental floss from your eyeballs to your feet,” says Roth, who will host a podcast, Season of Sam, with Darnold this year. “His eyes are so good because of his spatial and situational awareness from basketball. If you think about guards in basketball … it's not the pass that leads to the assist, it's the pass that leads to the pass that becomes the assist. And that's how he plays in the pocket.”

Popovich watched Darnold last season from his couch in San Clemente with a sense of awe and affirmation. He saw Darnold flushed out of the pocket frequently, and the 6-foot-4, 220-pound quarterback thrived amid the chaos, turning broken plays into masterpieces. Darnold, the basketball player, could catch the ball on the left wing and opt for a hard dribble as he maneuvered through high school defenders before spotting up for a jumper. On the field, he was doing the same things that Popovich had seen for years. It was increasingly surreal for someone who saw Darnold win league MVP as a sophomore and lead the team to two league titles in three seasons.

“If we needed 12 rebounds, he would get us 12 rebounds,” Popovich says. “If we needed him to score 27, he'd go score 27. We could post him up, we'd run stuff where he handled the ball, we'd run plays for him to hit 3s. The freelance nature of basketball suits his talents a lot.”

USC’s Sam Darnold

When USC head coach Clay Helton, then a coordinator, visited San Clemente to watch a few of Darnold’s games during his senior season in 2015, he noticed the translatable skills right away: the vision, the athleticism, the command. “He always had the ball in his hands, and he always elevated everyone on his team,” Helton says.

As Roth studies Darnold more, he is continually dumbfounded by the way the quarterback is able to react on three different levels. The first is when he drops back in the pocket. The second is when he avoids a tackle. The third is when he steps up and makes an accurate throw on the run. Scouts and coaches alike have been wowed by his uncommon skill set: a rare blend of wherewithal and athleticism that’s made him the Heisman Trophy front-runner in 2017.

“I don't think anyone's been built like Carson Palmer and can move that subtly in the pocket,” Roth says. “He’s a quarterback who is an athlete, not the other way around. That’s Carson, that’s Aaron Rodgers. That’s Sam.”

By now, he is used to the text.

Every time Darnold is back home, the message pops up on Popovich’s phone like clockwork. Hey, Sam is playing in your gym right now.

Darnold’s ritual when he returns to San Clemente is the same. Pickup basketball at his high school gym with Crankshaw, Russell, and sometimes his USC teammates. Sandwiches at Board & Brew down Avenida Pico with the special sauce on the side. It’s an escape from the fact that things are different now after Darnold’s spotlight-stealing freshman campaign, from which he emerged as college football’s poster boy and the near-consensus projected no. 1 pick in the 2018 NFL draft.

“Sometimes, he has to order food in so that he doesn’t have to go out, and get the attention of everybody,” Crankshaw says. “Everywhere we go, there’s people wanting to take a picture with him or get his autograph.”

Sam Darnold Paolo Uggetti

It’s a far cry from what Darnold is used to, and his fame has come at the expense of the sport that was once his main pursuit. During high school, he tried to balance both football and basketball for as long as possible, and Popovich recalls Sam flying from the Elite 11 quarterback camp in Oregon the morning after it concluded and napping on the UC San Diego gym floor prior to a tournament game. Darnold cared about hoops so much that when San Clemente blew an eight-point lead against Trabuco Hills High during his junior year, he took it out on his locker. His fist tore through the locker’s wooden door and crunched into the concrete wall behind it. The broken hand forced him to miss the remainder of the regular season, and while he managed to come back during the playoffs, it was after the Tritons had already lost the league title. It was the only time they would lose the title with Darnold on the varsity roster, and the only time in the past five seasons.

“It [would] be 5 out of 5, if it wasn’t for my son,” Mike jokingly texted Popovich following San Clemente’s league title in 2017. Popovich shot back: “That locker taught a lot of important lessons. It was definitely worth it.”

Darnold’s basketball ability is a product of lineage, long-term practice, and love. He began shooting hoops when he was just a kid, and his grandfather, Dick Hammer, was a basketball player at USC and an Olympian in volleyball. As Darnold grew and improved on the court, so, too, did the interest surrounding him. California state schools like UC Santa Barbara began recruiting him for basketball during his sophomore and junior seasons (he averaged 14.6 points, 9.6 rebounds, and 4.1 assists in the latter), and it became evident that if Darnold wanted it, his childhood dream to play the sport in college was within reach. “Basketball was my first love,” Darnold says. “I loved it just because it was so fast. Football wasn’t like that.”

Things rapidly changed in 2015 after a letter from Salt Lake City arrived in the mail. Darnold’s goals shifted. By then, he knew where his future lay. As a senior, Darnold threw for nearly 3,000 yards with 39 touchdowns. In the same gym where he once dominated on the court, his name now remains listed next to his five football records. “When Utah offered me, I was like, ‘OK, yeah, this football thing is probably what I want to do,’” he says.

Darnold proceeded to make three key decisions: He would return to San Clemente for one last basketball season, despite being set to graduate a semester early. He would go to college to play quarterback. And he would do it at USC. In the summer of 2015, Darnold traveled to the Trojans’ campus for a summer visit. When he returned, his excitement to play at the school he grew up rooting for was palpable. Popovich, though, wanted to be the voice of reason. “Sam, you do know they have Max Browne there, and they just got [blue-chip quarterback recruit] Ricky Town, right?”

Darnold didn’t flinch.

Coach, I’m better than them.

Not too long ago, Sam Darnold was no one.

There was a time at USC when his responsibilities were few—eat, play, study, and sleep. TV appearances and interviews were uncommon. Darnold and his closest friends on the team fondly remember being lowly scout team members, when they could indulge in one of their favorite pastimes: pickup basketball.

Darnold and his roommates, as well as most of the freshmen on the team, lived inside USC’s Webb Tower, which sits on the edge of campus and overlooks the Lyon Center, USC’s gym and workout facility. On the west corner of the facility’s second floor, there were three full-length basketball courts that Darnold and Co. wore out.

“We tried to play every weekend a couple times, especially in the offseason,” tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe says. “Instead of going to parties. For real.”

During that offseason leading up to their freshman year in 2016, tight end Tyler Petite quickly learned two things: Darnold was going to be a great quarterback, and he was also a hell of a basketball player. “I had no idea,” Petite says. “It was fun to watch, to see how someone could be so fluid in going back and forth between one sport and another.”

Everyone wanted to be on Darnold’s team during these pickup games. His distribution skills were unmatched. “He's just really easy to play with because he always knows where I am going to be,” Imatorbhebhe says before realizing he could be talking about either basketball or football. Wide receiver Deontay Burnett describes Darnold in both sports as a general who sees everything and finds space that seemingly isn’t there.

“Basketball, being as quick and fast-paced as it is, it really forces you to cut your vision and be able to make quick decisions based off what's happening in front of you, and now you just expand the field, and you have football,” Petite says. “‘Do I shoot it? Do I drive?’ Those become, ‘Do I take a shot down the field? Do I check it down? Do I run?’ Being able to make those decisions is what makes him so good.”

Despite the fact that USC’s roster always boasts an inordinate amount of talent, the Trojans’ 2017 chances will undoubtedly center on how Darnold follows up his meteoric freshman season. The burden of expectations has never bothered Darnold, but this is new ground. A bigger spotlight awaits, and harsher critique is at the ready.

Popovich remembers the expectations surrounding Sam going into his senior football and basketball seasons. Following an injury-riddled year, he faced pressure to come back and succeed. Darnold won All-CIF Southwest Division Offensive MVP and Orange County Register Offensive Player of the Year honors in football and was named the league co-MVP in basketball. He was the Register’s Boys Athlete of the Year.

“You hear them talking about national champions and Heisman,” Popovich says. “I don't know if that's going to be there at the end, but I do know he's not going to crumble under the pressure.”

“I’m not the biggest LeBron fan,” Darnold says hesitantly. “If he comes to L.A., it is what it is.”

It’s a sunny but cool afternoon on USC’s Howard Jones Field, and the Trojans have just finished team practice. After speaking to a crowd of reporters for about 15 minutes, Darnold is locked in, offering a glimpse of the off-the-cuff demeanor that the quarterback wasn’t comfortable revealing publicly a year ago. “He could talk basketball for days,” Crankshaw says of Darnold. “He loves talking basketball. He’s a junkie.”

“Kevin Durant is pretty dope,” Darnold says. “I mean, there's a bunch of stars now. Like, James Harden is super fun to watch, but he doesn't play defense.” Darnold isn’t afraid of using the proprietary “we” when talking about the Lakers, and in his bedroom back home he keeps a collection of Carl’s Jr. bobbleheads of the early-2000s squads, including Rick Fox, Kobe, and Shaq. Darnold gripes about the franchise’s down stretch in recent years, but perks up at the mention of rookie Lonzo Ball. “We have so much young talent now that if everybody is hungry to pass, I think it might improve our chances of getting better shots rather than them trying to go one-on-one every time, which is kind of how it was when D’Angelo [Russell] was there. ”

The same logic applies to this USC season. After falling from its perch in the years since Pete Carroll left for the NFL, the program finally seems to have recaptured its vaunted place in the college football universe. The Trojans outscored opponents by 161 points in their final nine games last fall. They enter this season ranked no. 4 in the preseason AP poll. And they have a quarterback who not only seems poised to follow in the footsteps of past stars like Palmer, Matt Leinart, and Matt Barkley, but may even be capable of more.

For now, Darnold would rather talk NBA, though, discussing the league’s superteam problem. “Golden State is so fun to watch, no matter how much anyone hates them,” he says. “Superteams, it happened in the ’80s with the Bulls, and the Lakers, and the Celtics, so I think it's just kind of a phase, and it'll pass. It won’t last forever.” It’s not that he doesn’t like talking football; it’s just that returning to his basketball roots can be refreshing. “Sometimes, I like to spend time talking about other things [than football],” he says.

Suddenly, Darnold is pulled away. Another media responsibility is calling. Former NFL coach Norv Turner has just entered the practice field with cameras from The MMQB following him. Turner wants to talk shop, and it’s back to business, back to more of the same. Basketball will always be Darnold's first love, but as he stands on the field in full pads, he acknowledges that part of his life is in the past, and that he couldn’t ask for a better present. Now, when kids imitate him in the backyard, they’ll do it by throwing the football.

Correction: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that a Sam Darnold 3 cut Tustin High School’s lead to five in a 2015 game against his Sam Clemente Tritons. The shot cut the lead to four.

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