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Is Jets No. 3 overall pick Sam Darnold a ‘system quarterback?’

USC relies pretty heavily on RPOs, spread principles, and quarterback improvisation. (Of course, so do the NFL champions.)

Stanford v USC Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Sam Darnold was a phenomenal college quarterback. There are some nits to pick about his stats as a redshirt sophomore in 2017, including some of concern to NFL scouts, such as his 13 interceptions, mostly in the early part of the season, and 12 fumbles (nine lost) that made for a total of 25 turnovers.

While those concerns may have dropped him from the No. 1 overall pick, he only fell two spots to the Jets at No. 3 at the 2018 NFL Draft.

However, Darnold carried a lot of the weight for the USC offense, ranked No. 6 in passer rating among Power 5 QBs in games against teams with winning records, and threw for 4,143 yards and 31 touchdowns while rushing for another five TDs as a short-yardage option. He did this for an offense that ended up starting a true freshman at right guard and moving its center (Toa Lobendahn) to left tackle when preferred option Chuma Edoga didn’t feel comfortable there, due to a surgery on his left hand. The Trojans had also lost top wideouts Ju-Ju Smith-Schuster and Darreus Rodgers and would endure multiple other injuries across the offensive line. Darnold’s occasional struggles were understandable.

But the bigger question is whether what Darnold did at USC translates to an NFL system.

All too often, people distinguish pro-style and college-style offenses from each other by things like how often the QB gets under center, whether the team runs the option, and whether they use fullbacks and tight ends. These don’t truly tell the story of whether the QB is executing tactics and techniques that make him a clean projection to the NFL.

For example, Boise State QBs have long been labeled as “system quarterbacks,” which hasn’t been fiercely contested, because everyone assumes the system must have been good to propel a six-footer like Kellen Moore to four seasons of 3,000-plus yards and the record for wins by a college QB. But Boise State regularly put Moore under center, flanked by fullbacks and tight ends, and not in order to run the Tom Osborne option, either.

Pro-style offense, properly understood, incorporates heavy use of 11 personnel “spread sets” alongside dropback passing. USC does a fair amount of that, but also regularly takes advantage of college rules and tactics by including a large number of RPOs and using Darnold’s size and athleticism in the QB run game.

Good pro-style QBs can read NFL defenses at the line of scrimmage and audible to get their teams into the best plays. The NFL is so complex that QBs need to be able to see minor differences in leverage and positioning before the snap to have a chance of sorting out the chaos during live action.

“Pro-style” shouldn’t refer to formations, because NFL and college offenses are now perhaps as similar as they’ve ever been. It should refer more to asking the QB to take command before the snap at the line.

The Clay Helton USC offense is more “college-style” than commonly perceived.

Since he arrived to start coaching QBs under Lane Kiffin in 2010, the offense has been marked by effective passing. With a potent run game (the traditional hallmark of the Trojans’ offense), superior OL recruiting, and burners in the wide receiving corps, USC’s spread-option offense has at times been devastating.

Clay Helton’s USC QBs

Year Quarterback Production
Year Quarterback Production
2010 Matt Barkley/Sophomore 377-2791, 7.4 ypa, 26 TDs, 12 INT
2011 Matt Barkley/Junior 446-3528, 7.9 ypa, 39 TDs, 7 INT
2012 Matt Barkley/Senior 387-3273, 8.5 ypa, 36 TDs, 15 INT
2013 Cody Kessler/RS Sophomore 361-2968, 8.2 ypa, 20 TDs, 7 INT
2014 Cody Kessler/RS Junior 452-3826, 8.5 ypa, 39 TDs, 5 INTs
2015 Cody Kessler/RS Senior 446-3536, 7.9 ypa, 29 TDs, 7 INTs
2016 Sam Darnold/RS Freshman 366-3086, 8.4 ypa, 31 TDs, 9 INTs
2017 Sam Darnold/RS Sophomore 480-4143, 8.6 ypa, 26 TDs, 13 INTs

When stacked next to Matt Barkley and Cody Kessler, Darnold’s achievements at USC don’t stand out as a golden run. He’s been stronger in some regards, but also more volatile at times.

The USC offense these days is a run-centric system, not terribly dissimilar from what Alabama has been running since Kiffin went to Tuscaloosa. The Trojans center around zone run blocking and the use of a TE, with screens and quick routes attached, to allow their QB to punish teams for overloading the box.

Darnold’s disastrous pick six against Ohio State, which more or less sealed the game with 44 minutes to go, came on such an RPO, as he threw a hitch that a late-spinning safety easily housed.

The Buckeyes disguised it well, but it was also a bad read by Darnold, who didn’t seem to recognize that the blitz by the middle linebacker didn’t mean free candy in the vacated area, but rather an impending safety.

Their passing game includes dropbacks, in particular the Chip Kelly mesh play that Nick Foles still loves in Philly and that the Buckeyes built around with J.T. Barrett. The Trojans ran it against the Buckeyes in the Cotton Bowl, dressed up with some motion to clear up the read for Darnold, but Ohio State was well-versed on how to cover that route combo after facing it in practice all year.

So Darnold showed a skill that has made him intriguing to scouts: his ability to stay calm in the pocket and buy time to find his main man Deontay Burnett improvising himself free. He was solid in the dropback passing game, although prone to a few baffling decisions, but this is where he was truly special.

The Trojans’ offense Darnold wielded wasn’t terribly complicated, but did make use of his skill sets as a thrower, runner, and improv artist.

The plan on key third downs was often to line up and check the defense, then receive a signal from the sideline. The danger of this is that savvy defenses could wait for the sideline signal and then move late, to prevent Trojans coaches from having the chalk last. Here, Texas waits for the Trojans to receive the call before shifting and realigning...

... so they can overload blitz the play design:

In these battles, Darnold only gave the Trojans an advantage in his capacity for escaping pressure and improvising. In the college game, that’s generally enough (although it led to real problems against Texas), but in the pro game, it’s hard to win if you’re at disadvantage in the tactical game.

USC coaches have evidently told NFL scouts that Darnold is “totally capable” of learning more about high-level signal-calling, but we haven’t seen it from him in the college game.

In sum, Darnold has been the most physically talented QB yet in USC’s system, which helps make QBs look good with simplified reads, a dangerous run game, and versatile weapons. The Eagles just won a Super Bowl in an offense along those lines, so perhaps with time and the right fit, Darnold can master the game at a high enough level to make his special attributes matter.