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What a difference one season makes.
Remember, it was one year ago that USC quarterback Sam Darnold was the hottest prospect in college football. Darnold, who on Wednesday announced he will enter the 2018 NFL draft, had completed an excellent redshirt freshman campaign, capped off by nine straight wins, including a sterling comeback win against Penn State in the Rose Bowl.
This season was a far different story, so much so that it felt like we were watching two different quarterbacks. The question moving forward for the Cleveland Browns and others picking at the top of the draft is which Darnold are you getting at the next level: The confident, commanding play-maker who fired darts all over the field (like he did as a freshman) or the inaccurate, turnover machine from his sophomore year?
As things stand today, Darnold has a laundry list of flaws. His two most glaring issues are ball security and errant decision making. His eight fumbles this season were the most by any player in the country. More important, his 22 total turnovers were the second most by any FBS quarterback.
To put that number in perspective, let’s stack it next to DeShone Kizer, when he was at Notre Dame. Kizer, who led the NFL this season with 22 interceptions, tossed nine as a redshirt sophomore and committed less than half of the turnovers that Darnold did. Granted, it’s hardly a perfect comparison, but both players are 6-foot-4, both are good athletes with strong arms and both played two years of college football against elite competition. At the very least, this comparison provides some insight into Darnold’s volatility.
To be fair, Darnold is still 20 years old and it wasn’t until his junior year of high school that he made the full-time transition under center, only to then suffer a broken foot and play just his senior season. (He had previously played both linebacker and receiver.) Darnold is a crafty quarterback possessing bonafide intangibles and upside who went an impressive 20-4 as a collegiate starter, despite losing top flight talent this season like wide receiver Juju Smith-Schuster and gadget man Adoree’ Jackson, as well as multiple starting offensive linemen.
To succeed as an NFL quarterback requires a myriad of components, not the least of which is decision making. In easily his biggest test of the season, Darnold matched up against Ohio State’s talent-rich defense in the Cotton Bowl. With his elongated release – reminiscent of one Byron Leftwich – and onslaught of bad throws, he looked outclassed, anxious and downright shook, finishing the game with two lost fumbles and an inexcusable pick-six during the Trojans’ 24-7 defeat.
The pick-six immediately draws a red flag, not because Darnold lacks the necessary arm strength, but because of the double coverage disguise that he will see more of as a pro. The Buckeyes’ defense baited him to make the throw and that’s precisely what he did.
Additionally, Darnold missed on several uncontested throws, a microcosm of a sophomore season in which his accuracy suffered and completion percentage dipped over four full points. Against Ohio State, he displayed next-to-nothing pocket presence while being sacked eight times, the majority of which should have been avoided by better pre-snap reads or throwing the ball away.
Better yet, he nearly committed another devastating pick-six. Trying to avoid a safety, he threw the football up for grabs in the waning moments of the first half. The pass fell harmlessly to the ground, but it displayed his Jay Cutler-like disregard for ball control, a central theme for Darnold and one that cannot not be ignored when evaluating a quarterback.
Whether or not Darnold achieves success at the next level remains to be seen, but there are undoubtedly significant problems in this gunslinger’s arsenal. Plenty of teams in the top 10 need a quarterback and someone will surely bet on his moxie and accuracy to become their franchise cornerstone. It’s a losing bet however and in turn, a colossal mistake.
For all his prowess, Darnold will be the next in a long line of USC quarterbacks to fail in the NFL.
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Follow Jordan Schultz on Twitter @Schultz_Report
Jordan Schultz is an NFL, NBA and NCAAB insider/analyst for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at Jordan.Schultz@Oath.com.
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