Sam Darnold's 2018 NFL Draft stock will ultimately be determined by what the USC quarterback does on the field this fall. Those on-field results, however, will be greatly impacted by a major offseason adjustment.
Darnold electrified college football as a redshirt freshman last season. The 6-foot-4, 225-pound former four-star recruit took over for Max Browne in a Week 4 loss to Utah and never looked back. He finished the season with 3,086 passing yards, 31 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He also averaged a respectable 8.4 yards per attempt and completed 67.2 percent of his passes.
Three months after we wondered when Darnold even see the field for the Trojans, he was suddenly a front-runner for the 2017 Heisman Trophy and 2018 No. 1 pick. All this success and future projections came despite an unusually long throwing motion.
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“His circle is, when your hands come apart, the ball comes down a little bit, and then it starts to come back up and then it goes all the way up behind your head and it goes forward when you throw,” Jordan Palmer, his personal quarterback coach, told the Orange County Register. “Right now, Sam’s circle is bigger than it needs to be.”
The "circle" is particularly evident on short throws that require a quick trigger:
"I've done it before," said Darnold, who tinkered with his motion in high school and again upon arrival at USC in 2015, "to create muscle memory to do things or not to do things. I think if I can just continue to work on it, it'll improve, you know?"
For now, Darnold's strong arm, pinpoint accuracy and adequate mobility have him atop the HERO Sports' 2018 NFL Draft quarterback rankings. But he'll surely be one of — if not the — most scrutinized player in college football this season.
The Trojans open the season at home against Western Michigan on Saturday, Sept. 2.