For months now we’ve been told USC quarterback Sam Darnold is the odds-on favorite to be the first pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. All offseason we were inundated with reports from scouts gushing about Darnold’s ability and how he had “it” at the quarterback position.
Some thought the redshirt sophomore was just being overhyped after an amazing Rose Bowl performance. But on one play against Stanford on Saturday, Darnold showed why scouts are drooling over him. It came on a touchdown pass with 9:43 left in the fourth quarter.
Here’s the play at full speed:
Seems like a pretty decent touchdown pass, right? Well when you actually examine everything that happened on the play above, you realize just how special Darnold is.
I’ll break down the play and show you exactly what Darnold did and how quickly he did it all. In the following explanation, I’ll show a picture and explain what’s going on in the text below.
Above is one angle of the formation pre-snap. Receiver Deontay Burnett (80) has motioned across the field to the near side.
Pre-snap from behind the formation. Here, Darnold sees there is no safety deep over the middle, but Stanford has a veteran secondary that disguises its coverages well. Rather than change the play, he sticks with what was called. The play will have two dig or “in” routes and a receiver running to each corner of the end zone. The check-down will be to the right flat, where running back Stephen Carr (7) is coming out of the backfield.
Right after the snap, Darnold looks over the middle of the field, and sees no high safety and no linebackers dropping. The safeties have split wide, which immediately tells Darnold that both corner routes will be bracketed. He should look to the dig routes as his first option.
Because the safeties are split and the corner routes are likely covered, Darnold’s first read will be the dig route to his left. His favorite target, Burnett, will fake an out route and come back to the middle. You can see in the above shot that Stanford has done an excellent job mucking this up. The Cardinal have three defenders taking on two receivers and are packed in closely. While Burnett might spring open, it’s unlikely he’ll have much room to work.
Darnold moves to his next read, which is tight end Tyler Petite (82) at the first down marker. He’s double covered, so that route is a no-go.
On the left, you can see that Burnett is about to make his in-cut, and cornerback Quenton Meeks (24) and do-everything DB Frank Buncom (5) have gone with Jalen Greene (10) on the corner route. That might leave Burnett open for a first down, and a lot of young quarterbacks would look to fit that pass in with the tight end covered. Instead, Darnold is smart enough to know what might be happening next and moves on.
Darnold’s next read is Steven Mitchell (4) running the other corner route. He immediately spots that Brandon Simmons (2), the safety on the right side, has stayed towards the middle of the field, meaning there will be a ton of open real estate in the end zone when Mitchell makes his break. Despite tight coverage by senior cornerback Alijah Holder (13), a perfect throw will mean six points.
On the left you can see that Burnett is making his break, but — as Darnold likely suspected from what he saw above in image three — the deep safety, Justin Reid (8), is about to close down on him hard. Burnett may have gotten the first down if Darnold fired the ball in there, but he might also have gotten lit up by the charging defender.
Darnold rapidly makes his choice: he’s going to Mitchell on the corner route. Look how quickly he has squared his feet under him to get a good base to throw from (compare the last two images). Given the positioning of his defenders and Mitchell’s cut, Darnold knows he just has to get the ball over Holder and it’s an easy touchdown. There’s no help over the top, and Holder has his eyes on the quarterback, not the guy he’s covering. He’s also making this throw before Mitchell is open, before he’s fully made his break and before his receiver has even looked back at him.
This would be an incredibly difficult pass for most other quarterbacks, but Darnold routinely makes plays like this.
Also notice linebacker Sean Barton (27) has broken off from covering Petite and is sprinting to Darnold’s right, in an attempt to cover Carr out of the backfield. Given the positioning of the defense at this point in the play, nine out of 10 quarterbacks would have thrown to the running back as a check-down option. But there’s a reason Darnold is such a highly-touted prospect.
I said it would take a near-perfect throw to get the ball there, and that’s what Darnold delivered. It just gets over Holder’s outstretched hand and perfectly into Mitchell’s grasp. Touchdown.
Here’s the play at full speed from behind Darnold:
When watching in real time, you realize Darnold made all of those reads and decisions in about four seconds. He did so with ease while under pressure, on the biggest drive of the game in front of more than 77,000 fans.
Darnold isn’t as polished as some other quarterbacks. He has a penchant for throwing off his back foot a few times a game and can take chances he probably shouldn’t. He’s definitely not perfect. Heck, crosstown rival Josh Rosen can make all the throws and has much smoother edges on his game than the Trojan signal-caller. But you can polish up a quarterback and teach him certain aspects of the game, Darnold’s ability to quickly diagnose complex defenses and situations, then make absolutely perfect throws into small windows can’t be taught.
Some quarterbacks are just special. Sam Darnold keeps showing us he’s one of those guys.