USC quarterback Sam Darnold’s career may have come full circle

DALLAS — Sam Darnold’s college career could end where it started, at AT&T Stadium, in Arlington, Texas.

On Labor Day weekend last year, Darnold, then a talented yet inexperienced backup quarterback, entered for Max Browne early in the third quarter of USC’s thumping by top-ranked Alabama.

It was the first time he had stepped onto the field for the Trojans, and his debut commenced an ascendance. Over 15 months, Darnold replaced Browne as the starter, sparked consecutive 10-win seasons, including USC’s first conference championship in nearly a decade, and blossomed as one of the premier passers in the nation.

Darnold, considered among the most talented quarterbacks in USC football history, could be playing in his final game in cardinal and gold Friday against Ohio State in the Cotton Bowl. The redshirt sophomore, whose future has been subject to ongoing speculation throughout most of this year, is eligible to enter the 2018 NFL Draft and forego his final two seasons of eligibility.

Is this week his swan song?

Darnold has offered few hints publicly about a draft decision that will have significant impact on the program’s immediate future.

Following USC’s regular-season finale, a victory over rival UCLA in the Coliseum, students serenaded him with chants of, “One more year! One more year!”

A reporter’s question about the cheer drew a laugh after the game.

“I’m not going to say anything about that,” Darnold said, grinning.

Throughout bowl practices, he deflected more questions.

His future was topic of conversation during a news conference soon after USC arrived Saturday in Dallas for its week-long Cotton Bowl preparation: Will he or won’t he go pro? He said he wasn’t dwelling on it.

“I can’t be thinking about other things when I’m trying to prepare for a defense like Ohio State,” Darnold said.

People close to Darnold, as well as Darnold, have said he has not made a decision. He might return to USC, he might also enter the draft. And unlike other top college quarterback prospects, he has not spent recent months researching and vetting potential agents or financial advisors — a step typical for expected draft entrants. Darnold has been cautious about the attention and overshadowing teammates. His parents have not met with agents, either.

Most of the time that Darnold will have spent evaluating his future will come over the 17 days after the Cotton Bowl, before the Jan. 15 early entree deadline.

Other top prospects reached decisions earlier in their seasons. Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen declared for the draft about 15 minutes after the Cowboys’ Famous Idaho Potato Bowl win last Friday.

As part of his two-week deliberation, Darnold and his parents will meet with both USC coach Clay Helton and athletic director Lynn Swann, a Pro Football Hall of Fame wide receiver, who will relay feedback from NFL front office and scouting personnel and an evaluation from the draft advisory board and offer advice. Other draft-eligible underclassmen will do the same. Darnold is expected to consult as well with former Trojans quarterbacks, including Matt Barkley, Matt Leinart and Carson Palmer. All of them faced a similar decision as underclassmen.

“We trust the people who have been through things,” said his father, Mike.

While Darnold comes from a family of athletes, Mike played college football at Redlands, his mother, Chris, played college volleyball, at Long Beach City College, as did his older sister, Franki, at Rhode Island, none of them harbored pro prospects like this.

“I’ve never been in a situation where I even have to think about how I’m going to help my son make a decision that involves millions of dollars and being in the position he’s in,” Mike said. “None of us have ever done that.”

Darnold was subject to more scrutiny in his second season as USC’s starting quarterback, largely over his early-season interceptions and fumbles, but most analysts saw his NFL stock mostly unaffected, noting he would be in contention to be the top quarterback selected alongside Allen and UCLA’s Josh Rosen, should he also declare.

“I haven’t talked to anybody who doesn’t view him as a top-three quarterback in this class,” said Daniel Jeremiah, a former NFL scout and current draft analyst for the NFL Network.

That means he would likely fall toward the top of the first round. Last April, three quarterbacks were taken among the first dozen picks.

“You look at it as there’s a lot of growing pains, he’s still learning what throws you should or shouldn’t make, but why scouts love him is because he’s so advanced in several key areas,” said draft analyst Dane Brugler of NFL Draft, pointing to Darnold’s pocket maneuvering and anticipation on passing routes.

Most people acknowledge other factors could persuade him to stay. He can complete his bachelor’s degree in communication. A fourth season allows him to play with the rest of his recruiting class, a close-nit group, as many of them will be seniors. The Trojans could again be national title favorites again with Darnold at quarterback.

It’s still somewhat common for redshirt sophomore quarterbacks to return to school, as UCLA’s Brett Hundley, Stanford’s Andrew Luck and Oregon’s Marcus Mariota all did. Redshirt sophomore passers who entered the draft in recent years included Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel and Florida State’s Jameis Winston.

“I don’t think he’s going to be one of those guys that says, ‘the business decision says go,’” said Yogi Roth, the USC assistant-turned Pac-12 Networks analyst who hosts a weekly podcast with Darnold. “I think that’ll factor into it for sure, but I really think it’ll come down to — like his play almost — come down to feel and instinct.”

In a podcast last week, Roth asked Darnold about his pending decision. It was as expansive as Darnold has been on the subject. He talked about noting pros and cons, then scrutinizing the list. In a way, it would mirror his college decision, when Darnold ranked his finalists, Duke, USC and Utah, in several categories.

“It’s something I’m going to deal with personally, and I’m not going to let any outsiders influence me at all,” Darnold said. “It’s my decision to make, and I think I’m going to make the best decision for myself.”

It’s his last play to make.

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