Rising Star: Sam Darnold vs Penn State

Sam Darnold, a redshirt Freshman set to be a top QB prospect in the 2018 NFL Draft

Hello everybody, welcome to a new series called “Rising Star.” Rising Star is essentially Defining Moment, but for players not yet eligible for this upcoming draft. Rising Star is used to highlight players who will be at the top of NFL and NBA draft classes in the near future. Now without further ado, let’s take a look at Rising Star’s first subject, Sam Darnold.

Sam Darnold is a young superstar. USC’s redshirt freshman QB lit a fire under the team upon his insertion into the starting lineup in Week 4, leading the Trojans to a 9–1 record, which includes a nine game winning streak. He added a different dimension to the Trojans, bringing a superior arm, superior accuracy, and superior mobility than the previous starter Max Browne. Darnold quietly established himself among the best QBs in the nation during the regular season, but in the Rose Bowl Darnold staked his claim for the best quarterback in college football for the 2017 season. Darnold shined on the bright stage, completing 33/53 (62.3%) of his passes for 453 yards and 5 touchdowns, and one interception. Darnold led an improbable comeback against Penn State, showing poise that is truly rare among freshmen.

Here, Darnold shows off his impressive mobility. He sees the pressure coming in his face, so he calmly rolls out and throws a dart to his receiver for the first down. That calmness under pressure is rare for a guy as young as he is. The poise and mobility he showed on this play will be highly coveted assets at the next level.

Another play beyond Darnold’s years. Off of the pump fake, he looks at his first read and sees his guy isn’t open, so he moves on to his second. In the process of moving read to read, he sees pressure coming through, and he also sees the hole in the pocket the penetration created. As a result, Darnold steps up in the pocket, something many QBs at the professional level struggle to do, and throws another dart on the run for a TD.

Ah, the good ole test of arm strength, throwing to the hashes/sidelines. If a quarterback’s ball is wobbly while throwing from one hash to the opposite hash or sideline, then the QB’s arm strength is probably shaky. The polar opposite happens here. Tight spiral and the ball flies out of his hand with great accuracy. You can put 2 and 2 together on this one.

A testament to Darnold’s mobility here, Penn State has TWO linebackers spying Darnold on this play. Darnold, though, made the two backers and the edge defender closing in pause with a crafty stop and go while rolling out, allowing him to accelerate past them for a 6 yard gain. His amazing mobility and improvisation gave his team a positive play where he probably should’ve been sacked for a 5 yard loss.

I have a feeling the redundant words in this article is gonna be mobility. On the roll out, the blitzing corner slightly underestimated Darnold’s athleticism and mobility, and that slight underestimation was all Darnold needed to get around the corner. Then with a linebacker bearing down to him, Darnold doesn’t do anything dumb like taking a sack or forcing a throw into coverage, and just simply threw it away. Live to fight another day.

This throw reminds me a lot of the throw that Aaron Rodgers had versus the Giants in the NFC Wild Card game. There is zero error for margin here and he puts it in the perfect spot for his tight end to reel it in. Brilliant showcase of his great arm strength and accuracy.

Great job attacking the middle of the field here. The defense gave him a hole to throw the ball into in between the linebacker and the safety and placed it perfectly into his receiver’s hands. A lot of mid tier to lower tier QBs in the league struggle to make this throw, and he makes it effortlessly here, and many other times throughout the season.

This is a great play showing off Darnold’s arm strength here. The ball dies on him a little at the end, but that’s expected when you release from your 30 and the ball travels all the way to the opponent’s 30. That’s a 40 yard throw on the run, and the ball still was accurate and gave his guy a chance to go make a play on the ball. These plays, throwing accurately while on the run, are money in the NFL.

I LOVE back shoulder throws. They’re practically unguardable and pretty much an automatic touchdown in the red zone for teams with QBs who know how to throw them. You know who else loves back shoulder throws? NFL head coaches, offensive coordinators, and QB coaches. This Drew Brees-esque back shoulder throw was perfect, and if during the offseason he can improve to make this throw consistently, it’ll go a long way to impressing front offices in the league. This is now the second play so far in the article where Darnold has thrown his receiver open, and we’re only in the first half.

Laser precision here from Sam Darnold. For the third time, no margin for error on the throw, and he put it on money. If he throws this behind the receiver it’s an interception. These are windows of opportunity he’s gonna see in the league on an almost regular basis, so front offices will salivate over him consistently making throws that have absolutely zero margin for error.

Like I mentioned earlier, a lot of NFL QBs struggle to step up into the pocket. Not Darnold though. He sees penetration flying towards him and recognizes that that penetration leaves a perfect lane for him to step up into, and he does just that. Darnold steps up and takes off, showing impressive speed for a guy his size, and even breaking a tackle, to pick up the first down and keep the 1 minute drill going.

Another good throw on the run from Darnold, perfectly placed on the sideline so his receiver can corral it and get his feet in bounds to secure the catch. His accuracy on the run is incredibly impressive and honestly superior than some NFL quarterbacks, and he’s a freshman.

Another great display of escapability and pocket awareness. As he is going through his reads, he tries to step up into the pocket but sees #90 bearing down on him, so he calmly rolls out of the pocket, avoiding yet another sack. Then he shows off his crazy accuracy on the move again, placing the ball precisely for his receiver to high point and make the play, but Burnett couldn’t quite reel it in.

When you see some QBs throw slants and curls, it seems like it takes forever and a day for the ball to get there. That feeling is almost always confirmed by a pass breakup by a DB. This, however, is not an example of this. The zip on the ball from Darnold is there, along with a bit of anticipation, and the ball gets there before the DB does despite the DB playing up. Big time arm on Darnold.

I mean, there’s not much to say here but what a freaking dart by Darnold. Darnold just waits for the slightest bit of separation by his receiver, and just as the receiver gets open he zips it past the corner and straight into his receiver’s hands, touchdown. The second gif shows just how small of a window he had to fit this in, and how precise the ball was. And so the comeback began.

Man, this play doesn’t have much to analyze besides Darnold somehow maintaining his balance when he slipped. This is just pure savviness. This is just being a pure gamer. Rising to the occasion in big moments.

Darnold does an amazing job not taking a sack for the sake of field position. The strength showed here is Big Ben-esque. What happened next is also Big Ben-esque in an admittingly risky and probably flat out stupid way. Instead of chucking it out of bounds or on the ground near a receiver, he tosses it to the tight end through contact. Luckily for Sam, his receiver bails him out. Live and die with the gunslinger.

The precision of Darnold continues to jump off the screen. He goes through his progressions, finds his receiver, and puts it the perfect position in the linebacker and the safety. The ball is put right on Burnett’s numbers, which allows him to protect himself. If he leads Burnett here, the safety smokes Burnett and he probably drops this ball.

This is a big time throw from Darnold here. His receiver, much like the touchdown throw earlier, gives him very little separation to work with, but it doesn’t matter. Darnold stands tall in the face of pressure and dropped a perfect deep ball right into his receiver’s hands. The ball placement could not be much better here. NFL caliber throw here from Sam.

Accuracy on the move, man. Rolling to his right, he works his way to the middle of the field through his reads, and then puts it right on Burnett’s numbers again. This dude’s accuracy, especially on the run, is absurd, as shown over and over again in this game.

On this drive to tie the game, Sam Darnold put on a clinic. Darnold’s pocket awareness is at 100 here, he steps up in the pocket when #30 flies up the field, and rolls to his right when #97 slices towards him, then throws yet another dime on the run for the first down. Keep the play alive, then make a play might as well be Sam Darnold’s mantra.

Gonna keep it quick here, just as quick as Darnold made this strike to his tight end.

One underrated aspect of Darnold’s game is his ability to attack the seams, and he does just that on this play. This is a good ball for Burnett and would have likely been a completion if he wasn’t blatantly interfered with.

The game tying TD pass was a masterpiece. Darnold goes through his reads then locks on to his intended receiver. A lot of QBs would not even attempt this throw due the three defenders in the vicinity of the receiver, but not this gunslinger. He puts the ball in the perfect spot, right into his receiver’s hands as his did all game, over the head of the linebacker and the corner and just in front of the safety. On the biggest throw of his young career, his ball placement was perfect and leveled USC with Penn State after being down 15 points. USC ended up completing the comeback, catching an INT on the ensuing Penn State possession and nailing a field at :00. In this masterpiece of a performance, Darnold broke the Rose Bowl record for total yards of offense previously held by Vince Young (2006 vs USC), with 473 yards, and the record for passing TDs with 5 previously held by multiple players.

Additional: Huge shoutout to Draft Breakdown for the brilliant work they do to produce this film to study.

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