For the coaches at San Clemente High, it is becoming a harder comparison to make: Sam Darnold to Jack Sears. One is a starter in the NFL, a newly-minted $50-million man. The other skateboards back and forth from class to the McKay Center and is preparing to make his first start for the USC Trojans on Saturday against Arizona State at the Coliseum.
But one thing sticks out to Tritons coach Jaime Ortiz and offensive coordinator Troy Kopp when thinking about the two young men who lifted their program to heights previously unseen: They were playmakers first and had to learn to be quarterbacks.
Playmaking ability can be difficult to assess in certain scenarios, like a controlled practice setting where coaches are quick to call a play dead and limit improvisation. Darnold wasn’t fully able to show the USC staff what he could do until he was unleashed in a game. Trojans fans can only hope that too will be the case for Sears, who competed with JT Daniels and Matt Fink throughout fall camp but ultimately finished third on the depth chart.
“It’s hard to evaluate the total package with Jack,” Ortiz said. “He makes explosive plays with his feet, and coaches have a tendency to blow the whistle. I know Sam at the time was frustrated, thought he could extend the play, but they would blow the whistle. When they get into scrimmage mode and they are able to play an actual game, that’s where you see Jack’s true colors kind of come out.”
Between Daniels’ backups, Sears was the one who was able to lead the offense to the most touchdown drives in scrimmage situations during fall camp. Quarterbacks coach Bryan Ellis said that Fink, with a year more experience than the redshirt freshman Sears, had a better grasp of the offense and how to move the Trojans into the right play and the right protections. But it was clear that Sears had plenty of talent to mold in the coming years.
When he didn’t win the job and was placed third on the depth chart, many assumed Sears would transfer, following the current culture in college football. He didn’t. After Daniels suffered a concussion in a loss to Utah last week and Fink broke ribs later in that game, Sears spent this week working with the first team. On Friday, USC announced that Sears would start against Arizona State.
The Trojans’ offense has been shockingly inconsistent this season with Daniels under center. Much of that is a product of a struggling offensive line that can’t create a push in the run game. USC (4-3, 3-2 in the Pac-12) will keep the playbook simple for Sears, but the staff can hope that Sears brings some Darnold-esque magic to this South Division affair with the Sun Devils (3-4, 1-3).
“Sam and Jack are two different people,” Kopp said. “They’re very instinctive, and they both can move and make plays with their legs, and they can throw on the run. Jack continued to surprise me with his ability to make plays.”
Ortiz has built a proud program at San Clemente, but even with Darnold, the Tritons could not win a CIF Southern Section championship. Darnold lost in 2014 with Sears as his wide receiver, and Sears could not get them over the hump either in 2015. But in 2016, Sears led them to a Southern Section championship and a state title.
Sears secured the state championship by intercepting a Hail Mary pass on the final play of the game.