Early Heisman Trophy odds for 2017 tell the same story the 2016 season told as it unfolded. Two of the biggest stories down the stretch last year were Trace McSorley-quarterbacked Penn State and Sam Darnold-quarterbacked USC. The two eventually met in the Rose Bowl, and Darnold prevailed in a thriller and all-time Rose Bowl effort.
The Nittany Lions figured out how to obliterate the Big Ten with their mastery of Joe Moorehead’s spread offense. Despite their late surge and league title, they missed the playoff in favor of Big Ten competitor Ohio State. For USC’s part, the Trojans started 1-3, with the last of those losses coming in Darnold’s first career start. The redshirt freshman then led USC on a tear, won nine games in a row, and set himself up as a Heisman contender (along with McSorley) for this season.
But Darnold’s team does have some work to do to build on its finish last year. The Trojans have to replace three of Darnold’s top four targets and do-everything star cornerback Adoree’ Jackson. Still: All of those guys were on the field when USC started the year 1-3. Darnold was out there for just about everything but the bad.
Darnold’s contributions to the run game are a key foundation.
Like most blue-blood programs, the Trojans want to run the ball. But they weren’t exceptional in that regard in 2016, and Darnold became their trump card.
The starting point for USC’s QBs is making the most of their athletic cast of skill talent and constraining defenses from squeezing closed the space that these athletes need. For the last several years, the Trojans have been adding more spread and RPO (run/pass option) tactics to their formula.
Beyond the normal weak-side bubble screens and slants they’ll attach to their runs, the Trojans will also get aggressive at times and have Darnold throw down the field:
Darnold reads the weak-side defender, and when he drops down to stop the run, Darnold punishes him by flipping it over to his head to an isolated receiver for a touchdown. The offensive line could have been flagged for getting too far down the field here (beyond 3 yards), but that’s incidental to USC’s success here.
Additionally, Darnold has some impressive athleticism for such a big guy — a listed 6’4 and 230 pounds — and was even considered a tight end prospect at one point in high school. The Trojans will make the most of this from time to time by mixing in zone read plays or even QB draws near the goal line:
His OL messed this up, taking a hands-to-the-face penalty that negated Darnold’s score. Regardless, you can see Darnold’s change of direction and power on display. Teams generally had their defensive ends play contain and take their chances against the running back on zone read plays, rather than risk giving Darnold the edge.
All of this serves to bolster the Trojan run game and make it difficult for opponents to get by without dedicating extra numbers or eyes to the run game. Once that’s established, the Trojans can really let Darnold loose on them.
In addition to the run game, Darnold’s a future NFL passer.
Darnold’s abilities in the passing game are what really made USC dangerous a year ago — and what could make them dominant from season’s beginning to season’s end in 2017. He roasted some legitimately good defenses from Colorado, Washington, and Penn State, often doing so without the Trojans even using much of their passing game playbook.
In those three contests, Darnold threw 123 passes for 1098 yards at 8.9 yards per pass, with 10 TDs and four INTs. In those same three games, the Trojans ran the ball 113 times for 425 yards at 3.8 yards per carry, with two TDs on the ground.
In addition to opening up the Trojan run game with his ability to make plays running or throwing in the spread-option, Darnold really carried the USC offense with what he did in their drop-back passing game.
He has a few elite skills that will probably see him head off to the NFL after this coming season, and which are exceptionally difficult to contend with at the college level. A few that stick out are his size, mobility, and cool. Those combine to equip him to make plays either by hanging in the pocket or escaping to throw down the field.
One of the early glimpses into Darnold’s improvisational abilities came early in the year against the Colorado Buffaloes, on a play that nearly cost USC the game.
Normally, you encourage your freshman QB to take a sack here. Most freshman QBs probably should. But Darnold wasn’t most freshman QBs. Darnold made a few improvisational plays over the course of the season, as well as a few plays in the pocket, that a smaller or less confident player would not have been able to execute.
His other elite attribute is a lightning-quick release that allows him to nail throws into tight windows, particularly when throwing over the middle on USC’s favorite passing concept: the shallow cross.
This one is more of a “mesh” concept, with a curl route just behind the mesh that Darnold hits between the conflicted linebackers.
USC ran a few different versions of shallow cross last season, but between their different iterations of the concept, it made up an enormous part of their drop back=passing game. On a given passing down, opponents could have been reasonably confident that this was what was coming their way. Stopping it was another matter because of Darnold’s quickness, poise, and accuracy.
With their ability to create matchups with their arsenal of veteran wideouts and flex tight ends, the Trojans feasted in 2016 throwing the ball inside against hapless college linebackers trying to keep up.
In 2017, the USC offense could expand.
In trying to build an offense this year, the Trojans have an advantage and a disadvantage.
The disadvantage comes from losing all of their top wideouts, save for Deontay Burnett, as well as both starting offensive tackles. The advantage is that they have the foundation of their offense established in the form of Darnold, and they can aim to replace all of their missing parts around his skill set this offseason.
While they got a good deal of mileage out of attacking linebackers over the middle of the field with shallow cross combinations, in the coming year they can also start to expand on some other passing concepts, like packaged route combos:
The RB motion to the “field” gives away the coverage and allows Darnold to make a quick progression and throw after the snap. If it’s a two-deep safety coverage, the Trojans are running “y-stick” to the field, which is designed to attack the middle linebacker. If it’s a single-deep safety coverage, like on this play, Darnold attacks the boundary with the slant/flat combo.
There are high-level schematics and execution going on for both teams here. Penn State expertly overloads the right side of the USC OL, normally a weak spot for a college team in pass protection. But USC is able to pick up the interior rush and make the play a contest of whether Darnold can get the ball out before the unblocked DE on the edge can get to him. It turns out that he can.
Darnold reads the weak-side defender, which ends up being a dropping DE rather than the weak-side LB, and drills the slant home all in a matter of instants. Because the end goes toward the sideline, Darnold goes toward the middle. It works perfectly. This is the same sort of combo that Deshaun Watson to take down Alabama in the national championship game.
For the coming year, Darnold will be working with returning starter Burnett, who had 164 receiving yards against Penn State. He’ll have some new blood at the other WR spots, but also returning tight ends Tyler Petite and Daniel Imatorbhebhe. And a few of USC’s freshmen, like five-star receiver Joseph Lewis, could be great.
Pettite and Imatorbhebhe got a lot of action a year ago, even if they didn’t get many targets. Their abilities as receivers will make it possible for USC to go back and forth between double-TE sets and spread formations, while continuing to use motion and matchup tricks to set up opponents for confusion and difficulty.
USC’s situation at receiver is less of a concern than on the OL, where the Trojans will have their work cut out for them matching last year’s unit in protection. Again, they’re well set up for success, because Darnold won’t need as much protection as many great pocket passers. That’s the benefit of an athletic QB who gets the ball out quickly.
It should be easier for Helton to build his offense around Darnold this year.
He’s got an entire offseason to configure the pieces around him, unlike when the Trojans had a QB competition between Darnold and Max Browne last year. If everything clicks right, USC could make appearances in both the Playoff and the Heisman ceremony.