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Stoic, confident Sam Darnold is making USC's quarterback decision difficult

Stoic, confident Sam Darnold is making USC's quarterback decision difficult
Sam Darnold is a redshirt freshman who is challenging Max Browne (not pictured) for the starting job. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

The first great pass Sam Darnold ever threw was probably a misread. He hadn't had much time to prepare. Darnold was a sophomore at San Clemente High, a starting receiver and linebacker. He was playing quarterback only because the starter got hurt.

His team trailed by seven against Tesoro. Darnold took a snap from the 34-yard line, took three steps, a hop, and lofted a throw straight into double coverage. The pass was perfect. It may have plopped atop the pylon had it not landed, like a raindrop, in the diving hands of his receiver.

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Then Darnold went for the two-point conversion, won the game and returned a week later to receiver and linebacker for the rest of the season.

This is the allure of Darnold, a redshirt freshman, who is unexpectedly challenging Max Browne for USC's starting quarterback job, despite a dearth of college experience.

Darnold's fast rise at USC does not surprise those who know him. As a 5-year-old basketball player, "Sam was the one who was getting pissed off because they were double-dribbling and they were traveling," his father, Mike Darnold, explained. (Later, in high school, he was named the South Coast League most valuable player in basketball.)

Darnold has an athletic pedigree. His mother is a physical education teacher. She and Darnold's older sister played college volleyball. Mike Darnold played college football. So did Mike Darnold's father.

Sam Darnold's other grandfather, the most decorated of them, played basketball for USC, made the U.S. Olympic volleyball team, then became one of the actors to play the Marlboro Man. Darnold was similar, stoic and assured, a little squeamish of attention.

Quietly, Darnold nurtured an intense confidence and the ability to pass the confidence to others. He has done so at USC.

Darnold committed to USC despite concerns that Cody Kessler would start his first season, that Browne was being groomed to take over and that Ventura St. Bonaventure High's Ricky Town, considered by many to be the best high school quarterback, was in Darnold's recruiting class.

"I figured, you know, I was going to compete wherever I went," Darnold said one day this summer.

Ultimately, Town decided to transfer early last season.

Darnold's ascendance this spring surprised some because he was a bit of a mystery in high school. He didn't court attention.

In high school, he participated in recruiting camps reluctantly. He wanted his play in games to speak for itself. He dragged his feet on cutting film. San Clemente Coach Jaime Ortiz put together much of his reel.

Defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox was the first USC coach to contact him, according to Ortiz. Wilcox, following Darnold's sophomore season, wanted him to play outside linebacker.

"Which he could do," Ortiz said. "I mean, Sam could play anywhere on the field."

Darnold politely declined.

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For USC, offering him a scholarship as a quarterback posed a risk. Nobody outside of San Clemente could say much about Darnold after he sat out most of his junior season because of a foot injury. The kid looked like a good player. Maybe. It was hard to tell.

Coaches could count his starts at quarterback on one hand. The injury made him a more willing participant in showcase camps, where he impressed, but he'd thrown for a total of just 748 yards in games that didn't involve preteens. He needed another way in.

So Ortiz stuffed the film he sent to college coaches — football coaches — with highlights of Darnold playing basketball. Ortiz wanted to show Darnold's athleticism and tenacity. Just wait, he signaled, until you see him throw.

It intrigued USC Coach Clay Helton and then-coach Steve Sarkisian enough to watch Darnold work out.

"Within a 30-minute period," Ortiz said, "he had an offer from USC."

Darnold told few people after he committed to USC. One was Ortiz.

Well, Ortiz remembered asking, are you going to make the news public?

"Sure," Darnold told him. If Ortiz wanted to tweet the news, Darnold wouldn't stop him.

One of Darnold's concerns, before committing, was that the incumbent quarterbacks would receive preferential treatment, despite the coaching staff's assurances. On one of Darnold's visits, Helton, then the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, left Darnold and Kessler alone in a room. It was a recruiting tactic. Kessler, he said, was free to answer any questions honestly, without any of Helton's spin.

"What's this guy really like?" Darnold's family wanted to know.

Kessler just shrugged. There was no spin, he said. If Helton said Darnold would have a chance to start, he would.

Darnold and Browne, a redshirt junior, separately said they have appreciated Helton's handling of this off-season's competition. Periodically, Darnold said, Helton has sat both down, together, and bluntly assessed where each stood. At Pac-12 media days, Helton announced that Browne would've been the starter, had the season begun after spring practices. Darnold wasn't surprised. Helton had already told him.

"Coach Helton's been super open about the competition," Darnold said.

Browne said the two quarterbacks are "better friends than people imagine."

"You're mature enough, and you realize that it's not a personal thing," he added.

Both quarterbacks aren't sure whether anyone buys that. Darnold offered evidence: Shortly before training camp both attended a small quarterback clinic, with Notre Dame's DeShone Kizer, in San Clemente. Another day this summer, Browne was browsing for Razor scooters online.

"Hey," Darnold said. "Order me one."

And so USC's two quarterbacks began tooling around campus on identical red scooters.

"Obviously, it's going to be a little weird, especially with fall camp. We're probably not going to talk as much as we usually do," Darnold said. But, he said, "Me and Max are good buddies."

If Darnold doesn't win the job, he'd likely find himself in Browne's position: waiting three seasons before competing for the job as a redshirt junior. Does he have the patience?

"We'll see," Darnold said, laughing. "I'm sure I'll be fine with it either way, whether I start or whether Max gets the job, I'll be fine with it. I'm not going to transfer, I can guarantee you that. That won't happen."

Darnold says he is focused on winning the job now. College is the first time in his life he played football only. Football dominates his time.

The next evolution Darnold must make is becoming a more vocal leader. Darnold can be more loquacious around those he knows well, said walk-on receiver Jake Russell, a childhood friend from San Clemente.

Even among that crew, Darnold feels most comfortable with a ball in his hand. In the off-season, he fills his time by playing basketball with Russell and other friends.

"He's throwing up three-point shots from Steph Curry," Russell said. "And he's knocking them down."

When they're not playing basketball, Darnold, Russell and crew of high school friends often return to Orange County for beach volleyball games.

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"He's good at that too," Russell added, as if it needed to be said.

zach.helfand@latimes.com

Twitter: @zhelfand

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