Sam Darnold's star shines bright as pressure, expectations mount at USC

LOS ANGELES -- The latest shaping of Sam Darnold's future has him smiling.

Buried in an NFL.com story about the USC quarterback's appearance at The Opening -- a high school prospect camp held earlier this summer -- is a juicy piece of gossip.

The author, quoting "several sources close to Darnold," wrote that "they wouldn't be surprised if [he] played two more seasons at USC." 

Darnold doesn't quite realize it yet, but the writer has already covered himself with journalistic Kryptonite.

"Wouldn't be surprised ..." means the report stands on its own two vague, shaky legs whether Darnold wins the Heisman Trophy and goes No. 1 in the 2018 draft -- or not.

That would also mean Darnold, a redshirt sophomore, stays through his eligibility in 2019.

"I thought it was interesting," the quarterback said, a smile creasing his face. "I don't know who [the author] was talking to ... People can say I might stay another couple of years. You never know. I don't even know. It all depends on what happens this year."

Thank you, Sam. Can we -- football nerds that we are -- just enjoy the moment for once instead of always projecting to the NFL?

Darnold isn't old enough to drink. He still gladly poses for selfies walking across campus. Sure, he becomes draft eligible after this season, but that hardly seems to be the point.

Never mind, the redshirt sophomore has yet to begin a season as a starter. Never mind, Darnold wasn't good enough to start as a redshirt freshman in 2016. Never mind those nine starts last season.

Actually, mind them very much. Darnold's leadership (and 36 touchdown passes) all at once saved a season and a rookie coach (Clay Helton) while helping dust off what can be three of the most precarious words in college football.

USC is back.

Yeah, yeah, you've heard a lot of this before. Five times since 2004 the Trojans have begun a season ranked in the top five; only once in those five years have they not finished in the top five (2012, preseason No. 1 to unranked after a 7-6 season).

Even during the dark NCAA probation times, the Trojans always had a quarterback. With that behind USC and this being Los Angeles on a clear, sunny day, anything seems possible. Darnold is a homie from San Clemente, a beach town in Orange County.

So mere speculation that he might come out early reaches all the way to places like the New York tabloids is troubling. The New York Post picked up the NFL.com mention earlier this month and turned it into a blow against the hapless New York Jets -- a so-called "Suck For Sam" campaign.

That sort of interpretation of Darnold's talents is as unsavory as the SoCal sun is bright.

"You're the face of the program in the second-largest media market in the world," Helton said. "The thing that defines him is no moment is too big."

That's why we're here: to find out how and why. Five times last season, Darnold led the Trojans to comeback wins, including coming back from a two-touchdown deficit against Penn State with 8 ½ minutes left in the Rose Bowl.

Over the course of two games against Arizona and Cal, USC outscored its opposition 62-7. In those games, 10 of Darnold's 57 passes went for touchdowns.

For only the 12th time in the program's history, UCLA and Notre Dame went down a the hands of the Trojans in the same year that USC won a Rose Bowl. Yup, Sam did that, too.

"That really showed who the kid is," Helton said. "In that type of atmosphere, the importance of the games, he was unfazed by it. He looked like he was at practice."

We're here mostly because Darnold has a hose. Despite not starting until the fourth game, he threw for 3,086 yards. Three times he threw five touchdowns in a game, the last in an epic Penn State win.

"That was kind of the moment I realized what we had done," Darnold said. "Once that [winning] field goal went in, you just kind of like look around. It was crazy."

These seem like the views of a 20-year-old from the OC, not an NFL-leaning prospect. Darnold never has taken to surfing and defers when his group is out to eat.

"I kind of roll with everything," he said. "That's kind of how I've been my whole life. I'm never going to be the one in my friend group to make a decision on where we eat."

But when he's on the field, the quiet kid turns into sort of a Chosen One. At 6-foot-4, 225 pounds, Darnold looks like he could play tight end or linebacker.

When the time comes, that Rose Bowl might as well be a resume tape for the combine. The game rode on that hose when the Trojans fell behind 49-35 with two minutes left in the third quarter. In the final 17 minutes, Darnold completed 12-of-14 passes for 148 yards and a touchdown.

Not counting a last-second spike, Darnold completed his last 10 in a row.

He can't help hear the NFL chatter as he heads into the season as both the top Heisman candidate and potential No. 1 quarterback taken in next year's draft.

"I'm working hard every day to help the USC Trojans, which is true," Darnold said, "but you can't ignore something like that."

The goal is the same it has been for five other USC quarterbacks drafted since 2006. Stay on task while Hollywood and Pac-12 defensive linemen rage around them.

Even if you only saw Darnold throw those 53 passes against Penn State, you should be convinced this college thing isn't for long.

Jordan Palmer saw him five years ago when Darnold was a high school sophomore.

"Ohhh," Palmer said to himself, "this kid is different."

Palmer played in five NFL games over three seasons. His brother, Carson, a Heisman winner at USC, is entering his 14th NFL season. Jordan has developed quite a business tutoring college quarterbacks on the side.

Coming off his senior season of high school, Darnold was better than some of Palmer's other clients -- like Clemson's Deshaun Watson, California's Jared Goff and Penn State's Christian Hackenberg -- Jordan says.

"I did not build this kid," Palmer said. "I did not shape this kid into what he is. He would be in exactly the same spot had he never met me.

"I would rather him rave about [our] relationship, than me."

Darnold called Palmer a mentor. Palmer has helped Darnold deal with a hitch in his throwing motion that has become like some of those New York Post mentions -- nagging and frivolous as they relate to the here and now of college football.

"You see it on film, it's there for sure," Darnold said of the hitch. "But I think it's quick enough to where it doesn't matter that much. Me and Jordan have been working on it. ... I know Jameis [Winston] went through the same thing and he managed to fix it."

Everyone seems to want to push this kid into the league before he completely settles into college.

"He's so aware of how the hype could affect him if he allowed himself to buy into it," Palmer said. "A trap is a trap unless you know it's a trap.

"It's buried underneath the leaves and you have no idea it's there and super dangerous. But if you know exactly where it is ... it's just of no concern."

Somewhere under those leaves, Darnold is torn. Walking off the field as a Rose Bowl winner is one of the top legal highs allowed.

But so is that senior year as USC's quarterback -- just ask Matt Leinart (2005) and Matt Barkley (2012). Both stayed for their final year despite being able to come out early as high draft choices.  Simply put, they couldn't let go of college.

The glory, the honor, the paycheck. There's a long way to go. Or is there?

CBS Sports Senior Writer

Dennis Dodd has covered college football for CBS Sports since it was CBS SportsLine in 1998. He is one of only seven media members to attend all 16 BCS title games and has chronicled conference realignment... Full Bio

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