For USC, a bye week can be important, too — just ask Sam Darnold

For USC, a bye week can be important, too — just ask Sam Darnold
USC quarterback Sam Darnold scrambles for yardage during the first half of the game against Arizona on Oct. 15. (Rick Scuteri / Associated Press)

USC’s players mustered in a circle around Coach Clay Helton after Tuesday’s practice, the backups and redshirts sweating and panting, the starters relaxed.

The bye week is traditionally when USC rests its regulars and gives extra practice repetitions to the players who normally don't see the field.


"Go in and watch this tape," Helton told them.

He assured them that the coaches would be evaluating their performance this week and assigning each player a grade.

For evidence, the Trojans need look no further than to their starting quarterback. Sam Darnold was marooned on the scout team while he redshirted last season, but those who were paying attention could see traces of brilliance.

The bye week served as his introduction. In a short amount of time, Darnold whipped the ball around and produced several touchdowns.

"I just remember guys talking about it," offensive coordinator Tee Martin said. "It was locker-room talk as coaches. 'Man, you see what Sam did? This guy's going to be really good.' "

To the younger players who practiced often with Darnold, the performance was not unusual. Darnold seemed advanced, they said. Helton said Darnold became a "scout-team legend."

"He was poised," receiver Deontay Burnett said. "It was just exciting to see him throw the ball."

Tight end Tyler Petite, one of Darnold's roommates, said Darnold's proficiency started early. Petite's fellow tight ends, he said, would comment among themselves after receiving passes from Darnold.

"When the threes were going in during fall camp, we'd just kind of sit there and look at it, and we'd kind of be shocked," Petite said.

The entire team was impressed during the bye week, but, Petite said, "it wasn't even just the bye week that was impressive."

Flipping out over start

When Burnett was at Gardena Serra High, he and cornerback Adoree' Jackson would hold daily competitions. Sometimes, they would do flips or spins and try to catch the ball. Other times, they would see who could catch the most deep passes one-handed.

The acrobatics caught the attention of Martin, then USC's receivers coach, and earned Burnett a spot on USC's roster. Now, Burnett is preparing for his first start at slot receiver after a knee injury ended Steven Mitchell Jr.'s season.

In announcing the change, Helton said Burnett had the widest catch radius on the team. Burnett snatched anything near him, Helton said.


Burnett credited his hands to his routine with Jackson.

"I always tell myself, what is a receiver who can't catch the ball?" Burnett said. "I always tell myself, too, that if you practice that hardest catches, then they come easy in the game."

Quick hits

Running back Justin Davis (high ankle sprain) was not at practice Tuesday and remains in a walking boot, Helton said. … Receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster (lower back) did  not practice as a precaution but is expected to return to action by Saturday. … Offensive lineman Jordan Simmons (knee tendinitis) and safety Leon McQuay III (hip and groin) did not practice. … Zach Banner experienced no discomfort with his sprained ankle after the game against Arizona. He'd missed the previous two games due to the injury.

Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand