USC’s best?

Palmer, Leinart praise pos­si­ble No. 1

USA TODAY Sports Weekly - - News - Mike Jones Con­tribut­ing: Lorenzo Reyes

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.”

KELVIN KUO/USA TO­DAY SPORTS

South­ern Cal­i­for­nia quar­ter­back Sam Darnold is atop many draft ex­perts’ list of who will go No. 1 over­all April 26.

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