Palmer, Leinart praise possible No. 1
Sam Darnold, the potential No. 1 pick in the NFL draft, has wowed other great Trojans QBs. Top 150 draft board, Page 19
Carson Palmer experiences a mix of emotions when he thinks of Sam Darnold.
Palmer, now retired after 15 NFL seasons, has traveled virtually every path that Darnold’s football journey could lead. When the draft begins April 26, Darnold could become the first University of Southern California quarterback selected first overall since Palmer had that distinction in 2003. Palmer can’t help but recall the pressure when the Bengals anointed him their franchise savior and knows Darnold will face the same expectations. But Palmer, a three-time Pro Bowler who ranks 12th in league history for both passing yards (46,247) and touchdowns (294), believes Darnold can enjoy similar success. Maybe more. “All the hype he’s getting is well deserved, and I believe he should be the first quarterback taken — without a doubt,” Palmer told USA TODAY. “He has a chance to be not good, but great. I’m excited to see him play. I’m nervous for him and excited for him.
“He’s a great kid — and humble and hungry and excited to work, and excited about the opportunity — and those are some of the characteristics that make quarterbacks great.”
Darnold and Palmer belong to a Trojans quarterback fraternity that has produced many highly touted prospects. Matt Leinart (2006) and Mark Sanchez (2009) followed Palmer as top-10 picks. Matt Cassel, John David Booty, Matt Barkley and Cody Kessler went in later rounds. However, none managed to translate college success into admirable NFL careers. Even as accomplished as Palmer is, he went 1-3 in the postseason. (No USC quarterback has started and won on Super Bowl Sunday ... though UCLA, Stanford and California products have hoisted the Lombardi Trophy.)
That reflects difficulty teams face in properly projecting, drafting and developing passers, and the players’ challenges adapting to the pro ranks, according to Palmer.
“It’s a first-round quarterback thing, not a USC thing,” he said.
NFL Network draft guru Mike Mayock agrees. “You can’t really knock the individual kid for failures of other players in his program,” Mayock said last week. “Sam Darnold is a completely different kid. They all have different coaches that are asking them to do different things. … I don’t think the recent failures of USC quarterbacks will hurt (Darnold) at all.”
But why are those close to Darnold so convinced he’ll end the streak of USC disappointments?
The 6-3, 221-pounder possesses all the requisite physical tools. But Darnold’s instincts could elevate him.
“You know how people talk about extending the play? A lot of guys will make somebody miss in the pocket, make somebody else miss and find a checkdown — or make somebody miss and throw the ball away to save a sack,” Palmer said. “But he’s got the rare ability to buy time in the pocket and buy time with success. ... He has such a knack and great peripheral vision, and he’s extremely accurate. That’s stuff you can’t coach.”
Leinart won the Heisman Trophy in 2004 but started only 18 NFL games despite being Arizona’s first-rounder in 2006. Now a Fox college football analyst, he concurred with Palmer’s assessment of Darnold.
“Sam’s game is different from any other quarterback in this draft,” Leinart told USA TODAY, likening Darnold’s ability to extend plays to that of Tony Romo or Ben Roethlisberger. Like them, Darnold evades defenders with the objective of making downfield plays rather than running.
As for handling expectations and media obligations in the NFL — about 40% of the job, according to Palmer — Darnold shouldn’t experience a huge adjustment. “There’s no pressure like USC,” Palmer said. “You walk off the field at practice, and there’s 40 members of the media on a daily basis. Postgame, there’s real NFL-like press conferences. You don’t get that kind of exposure at many other schools.”
Playing in Los Angeles, for a Trojans program that still generates more interest than the relocated Rams or Chargers, brings not only intense scrutiny but also distractions. But Palmer described Darnold as a kid who never felt drawn to the limelight and plays for love of the game instead of fame.
A story told by Leinart best reflects the grounded persona Darnold seems to have. Three weeks into the 2016 season, USC coach Clay Helton benched junior Max Browne and turned the job over to Darnold, then a redshirt freshman. He went into a hostile environment at Utah and completed 69% of his passes for 253 yards, rushed for a TD and didn’t commit a turnover. But the Trojans lost 31-27, and that weighed more heavily on Darnold than anything else. So he reached out to Leinart, owner of two national championships and a 37-2 record at USC.
Darnold still hasn’t stopped texting or calling Leinart, Palmer — both hope he winds up in a positive NFL teaching environment, encouraging him not to ease his quest for greatness — and others for advice.
“He wants it,” Leinart added, “and he’s not afraid to ask, ‘What do I need to work on? I have a problem fumbling the ball. What do I need to do to fix it?’ That’s Sam.”
Southern California quarterback Sam Darnold is atop many draft experts’ list of who will go No. 1 overall April 26.