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Still carrying a big arm, USC's Sam Darnold aims to speak a little less softly

Still carrying a big arm, USC's Sam Darnold aims to speak a little less softly
USC quarterback Sam Darnold runs through drills on the first day of spring practice at Howard Jones Field while quarterbacks coach Tyson Helton looks on. (Luis Sinco /Los Angeles Times)

Amid the revelry in a champagne-soaked locker room after the Rose Bowl game, several USC players tried to remember what quarterback Sam Darnold had said before an iconic, score-tying drive. Smiles turned to pursed lips. Brows furrowed. What were his rousing final words?

No one could think of anything. One player guessed that he just called the play.

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"It's kind of weird, if you think about it," another player, right tackle Zach Banner, concluded.

Darnold, a redshirt sophomore, was the undisputed star when USC opened spring camp on Tuesday. He attracted the largest media horde. The smaller satellites that formed around other players mostly wanted to ask questions about Darnold

But USC's hard-throwing, soft-spoken leader may test out a philosophical question next season: If a quarterback throws in a stadium, and no one there can hear him, does he still win the Heisman Trophy?

Darnold would rather not find out. A man of few words, Darnold decided as early as last summer that he wanted to become a more vocal leader.

Progress was halting. Catching a full sentence in games, teammates said, was like waiting for rain during August camp. Safety Chris Hawkins thought for a moment Tuesday, then decided he couldn't really think of a time he heard Darnold speak on the field.

"He doesn't really celebrate. Even when he scores a touchdown, he comes to the sideline with a straight face," Hawkins said. "I mean, you might hear a curse word if he messes up or something. But besides that, Sam, he's really quiet."

On Tuesday, Darnold said he was again pushing to become a louder leader.

"I don't want to change who I am," Darnold said. "But I'm definitely working on little things. If something's wrong, I'm going to point it out right away."

Leadership tropes can become a tired sports cliche. Rare is the athlete who doesn't claim he "leads by example."

But for quarterbacks, clear communication is a central requirement of the job. If a receiver takes a bad route or a blocker misses an alignment, the quarterback is often the only player on the field who will know it.

One of Darnold's roommates, linebacker Cameron Smith, who said he was similarly searching for his voice, noted that, "Sam and I are a lot alike. Very much alike. We struggle with — we don't struggle, but it's not our first instinct to speak."

Coach Clay Helton said he didn't want Darnold to force anything just because it was expected of him. Darnold, a mostly anonymous backup a year ago, must already deal with life-changing notoriety.

"He's been asked to step up and grow into a man like this," Smith said, snapping his fingers.

So, Helton said, "I've asked him to just be him."

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Helton called Darnold "a great one-on-one leader." He talks enough off the field. Darnold does not offer flashy sound bites, but he has shown a diplomat's instincts during interviews. On Tuesday, Darnold, an early All-America candidate, was asked earnestly if he thought the starting quarterback job was his to lose. He did not laugh.

"I'm not looking at it that way," Darnold said. "I'm just looking at it as coming out here every single day and playing my best."

But during games and practices, he'd prefer to lock in and keep his mouth shut.

Receiver Deontay Burnett said Darnold was quicker to confront during the first spring practice. Whenever Burnett messes up, he said, he expects to hear from Darnold.

Besides, he said, it doesn't take many words for the message to come through.

"People are going to listen to him," Burnett said, "because he's Sam Darnold."

Quick hits

Five players will miss all of spring practice: Offensive linemen Toa Lobendahn and Nathan Smith (knee), receivers Steven Mitchell Jr. (knee) and Trevon Sidney (hip) and cornerback Jonathan Lockett (hip). Defensive tackle Kenny Bigelow Jr., who injured his knee last spring, will be limited. … Chuma Edoga and Roy Hemsley started at offensive tackle, a position where one of the fiercest battles is expected to take place.

Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand

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