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Notre Dame Football

ND Vs - USC QB Sam Darnold

June 7, 2017
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Like most programs, USC declined when a great coach left. That's the simple way of saying it by taking the NCAA sanctions out off the table. The Trojans went 97-19 during the Pete Carroll era, which included seven seasons of at least 11 wins and two national championships.

It's easy to say they went downhill because Carroll was no longer guiding them, but the talent level didn't dip all that much over the next seven seasons. The big difference between Carroll and the four head coaches that have followed him? He had three first round draft picks at quarterback and there hasn't been one since.

I don't think it's a coincidence that Clay Helton helped USC win a Rose Bowl for the first time since 2008 with a quarterback who is projected to be one of the top selections in next year's NFL Draft. USC was on a roller coaster of inconsistency until they unleashed Sam Darnold.

After losing his first career start at Utah, Darnold emerged as one of the top quarterbacks in the nation over the next nine games. The Trojans won all nine of them and turned a disastrous 1-3 start into a great season. None of that happens without Darnold.

Based on pre-season projections, Notre Dame faces only one elite quarterback in 2017. Darnold is it. He's an outstanding football player that the Irish are probably not going to be able to stop when he visits Notre Dame Stadium for the first time this October. They can only hope to contain him as much as possible, which won't be an easy task.

Incredibly elusive


Some guys just have "it". That sixth sense or feel in the pocket that allows them to escape pressure and avoid being sacked. I haven't seen many who are as good at escaping pressure as Darnold is. The USC offensive line was good in 2016, but the main reason they only gave up 12 sacks on the season was Darnold. He made pass rushers miss numerous times.

This play against Notre Dame should have been a sack for Jerry Tillery. Left guard Damien Mama completely blew his assignment and it was a free shot at the quarterback, but Darnold evaded the tackle and turned what should have been a 3rd and forever into a 3rd and 2. He not only escapes the rush, but somehow managed to turn it into a positive.

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Here's another missed opportunity for the Irish, this time by Jonathan Bonner. Darnold is tremendous at improvising and he turns another negative into a 1st down with his unorthodox jump pass.

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Obviously he is tremendous at making rushers miss, but this can't happen. When they get a chance to sack him, they need to bring him down. Even giving him an extra second to make a play is going to be costly. He is so good when the play breaks down.

Other quarterbacks may run faster, but he is in rare company when it comes to making athletic plays that look bad, yet turn out well. He has a little bit of Aaron Rodgers in his game in that way. This throw against Washington should end horribly based on his mechanics. It's like he is a shortstop turning two with a base runner coming right at him. It's all arm and still he hits his receiver in stride to move the sticks.

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Can't give him time in the pocket


This can be said for most quarterbacks, but it's particularly frustrating with Darnold because the impression most have is that he is at his best when he is outside of the pocket. Many coordinators try to go with the rush 3, drop 8 strategy against someone like him, but I don't see that being overly effective against Darnold. He can pick teams apart if they let him.

He's not a one read and then scramble guy. On this play against Notre Dame he finds the hole in the eight guys who dropped into coverage by looking off the safety and finding his man over the middle of the field.

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The previous play before that was a total misread by him and then he comes back and makes that throw on 3rd down.

Against Washington he had all kinds of time against this four man rush. They kept him inside the pocket, though, and he just waited them out before throwing a crossing receiver open in the back of the end zone.

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Anticipation and arm strength


Having this to go with the rest of his skill set is why he is already being talked up as the potential top pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. This throw against Penn State is simply filthy. Most quarterbacks would see the two safeties and never dare to make this throw knowing where their intended receiver was located.

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He's supremely confident in his arm and why wouldn't he be when he knows he can thread the ball into a window like that?

Sometimes that confidence can get him into trouble and he will force some throws because of it. This interception against Washington was an example of a ball that he never should have thrown.

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According to reports, he threw several interceptions in spring practice as well. Based on that and some decisions he made last year, it's fair to assume that there will be opportunities to take the ball away when he plays the Irish this season. The defense will need to capitalize on all of its opportunities.

Out of all the games I watched last season, I felt Washington did the best job against him. He still threw for 287 and two touchdowns against them, but his numbers would have been even more impressive if they played him differently. I think they did the right thing by blitizing more than they typically do. They just didn't get him on the ground enough and play well enough on offense to win the game.

Notre Dame will have to put up a lot of points when they play USC and they'll need to find ways to sack Darnold. If they do that, then the Irish should be in good shape when they face him in October. If they don't, then it will probably be a long night for Mike Elko and his defense.


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