A lot of the things that scouts look for in a player are measurable - size, strength, speed, statistics and wins being among them. Scouts also talk about players who possess that undefinable "it" factor. Darnold, still just a redshirt sophomore, offers a prototypical blend of each.
It is easy to get caught up in hyperbole with a player with a player like Darnold, who has enjoyed such incredible success over his first two seasons as a starter at Troy, especially given the hype that comes as a Heisman Trophy candidate in the nation's second-leading media market.
From a statistician's point of view it certainly looked like Darnold had been over-hyped when he tossed multiple interceptions in each of USC's first three games of the 2017 season or when the Trojans were shocked on the road at Washington State. Those looking deeper, however, acknowledged the turnover around him, including the loss of his most reliable pass-catcher, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and three all-conference offensive linemen to the NFL. Darnold was only sacked six times in his breakout 2016 campaign. That number moved to only 21 over the 2017 regular season. As such, scouts watching the tape (rather than those in the media simply watching box scores) were not surprised when Darnold's play "suddenly" returned to form as he and his teammates gained more experience.
In large part due to Darnold's play, USC ultimately finished the regular season with an 11-2 record and a berth in the Cotton Bowl against Ohio State.
The loss in the Palouse was the only blemish on USC's conference schedule, in fact, with Darnold accounting for 25 touchdowns (21 passing) against seven interceptions against Pac-12 foes in 2017. Among his more notable performances were wins over cross-town and potential NFL draft rival, Josh Rosen and UCLA in a highly anticipated regular season finale and against Stanford in the Pac-12 championship game.
A week after beating Stanford for the second time in 2017, Darnold - not Rosen or the Pac-12's all-time passing leader Luke Falk from Washington State - was named the Pac-12's top quarterback by the conference coaches.
Darnold's success in 2017 was hardly a surprise given his spectacular debut as a redshirt freshman a year before.
Despite not being inserted into the starting lineup until the fourth game of the season, Darnold quickly emerged as one of the best players in the country.
He sparked the Trojans to wins in their final nine games (after starting the season 1-3), including a gritty win in Seattle over eventual Pac-12 champion and playoff-bound Washington and capping it off with a dazzling comeback over Penn State in the Rose Bowl in which he completed his final 10 passes and set career-highs in completions (33), passing yards (453) and passing touchdowns (five) in a performance that ranks among the legends in USC's storied history.
Overall in 2016, while appearing in all 13 games and starting the last 10, Darnold completed 246-of-366 passes (67.2%) for 3,086 yards with 31 TDs and 9 interceptions, plus 62 carries for 250 yards (4.0 avg.) with 2 TDs. He redshirted in 2015, serving as the Trojans' No. 3 quarterback and earning USC's Offensive Service Team Player of the Year.
When breaking down Darnold's game for the NFL, the first thing that jumps out is his prototypical size and strength for the position, a stark contrast to many of the top-rated quarterbacks in recent years.
He possesses plenty of arm strength to make every NFL throw and shows accuracy to all levels of the field, including on the move. For such a young player, Darnold plays with exceptional poise and instincts for the position. He has a knack for buying time by stepping up or sliding out of the pocket while keeping his eyes downfield, putting a lot of pressure on defensive backs to maintain their coverage.
Darnold does have some areas in which his game can improve, most notably an elongated throwing motion. Further, his turnovers jumped in 2017 with 12 interceptions over the regular season and several fumbles. Tape review, however, suggests that Darnold's mistakes are not unfixable flaws but more of an indication of his simply trying to do too much.
With only 24 career starts (including the Cotton Bowl), there is no denying that Darnold could use a little more polish to his game. Given the need for quarterbacks in the NFL, however, if he were to make the early jump, Darnold appears to be a cinch for a top five pick with the No. 1 overall selection a distinct possibility.
Like most USC recruits, Darnold was a multi-sport prep star. Among his more notable high school achievements was the fact that he made the 2014 Prep Star All-American Dream Team and Max Preps All-State Division II first team. He completed 213-of-314 passes (67.8%) for 2,996 yards with 39 TDs and 8 interceptions and ran for 785 yards on 125 carries (6.3 avg.) with 13 TDs as a senior guiding San Clemente to the CIF Southwest Division championship game.
He completed 29-of-46 passes (63.0%) for 337 yards with 4 TDs and ran for 322 yards on 35 carries (9.2 avg.) with 5 TDs as a 2013 junior before he broke his foot in the third game of the season and was sidelined for the final 8 games. Besides quarterback, Darnold also lined up at linebacker and wide receiver.
He also played basketball at San Clemente, earning All-League MVP honors as a 2013 sophomore and 2015 senior (he averaged 15 points and 9 rebounds as a senior when he also was All-CIF Division IAA second team and Orange County Register All-Orange County fourth team). He missed most of his 2014 junior season recovering from his broken foot suffered in the football season and then he broke a finger. He also played baseball at San Clemente.
Possesses a rock-solid build for quarterback with the required body armor to take punishment, including broad shoulders and a thick, evenly distributed musculature. An instinctive, "natural" player who saw action at linebacker and receiver, as well as quarterback in high school. Good pre-snap diagnosis skills, especially for a young player, typically delivering the football quickly to his primary read.
Possesses a bit of a windup but shows the ability to shorten and speed up his release when necessary (Oregon, 2016) to deliver strikes through closing windows. Above average arm strength with plenty of velocity to make every NFL throw, zipping deep outs to the sideline from the far hash and lofting deep balls 60+ yards. Very good accuracy to all levels of the field, consistently hitting receivers in stride and allowing them room to generate yards after the catch, especially on slants, drags and deep posts - staples of every NFL offense. Very good touch and trajectory to fit passes under the safety but over the linebackers down the seam and in the flats.
Throws a very catchable ball and flashes the anticipation of a veteran passer, showing the willingness to deliver passes before his receivers break. Good spatial awareness of defenders around him in the pocket and shows no hesitation in stepping up or sliding laterally while keeping his eyes downfield. Aggressive to scramble when openings are there and doesn't shy from contact, often delivering a blow to defenders. Very good accuracy on the move with USC incorporating more rollouts and bootlegs into their offense to take advantage of his mobility and excellent improvisational ability.
Shows rare poise for a young player with several comebacks already on his resume and experience with the pressure of a major media market. Voted a team captain as a redshirt sophomore.
Only has 24 career starts under his belt and remains a work in progress in many ways. Developed some bad habits behind a leaky offensive line in 2017, occasionally bolting the pocket after his initial read was taken away rather than working his progressions. Must do a better job of protecting the football, holding it with just one hand while scrambling, and getting it punched out on multiple occasions (Washington State, Notre Dame - 2017). Winds up to throw, extending the ball far behind his head in a baseball-like motion which simultaneously provides pass rushers a target to slap the ball away and defensive backs an extra split-second to undercut would-be receivers.
COMPARES TO: Hall of Famer Joe Montana, 49ers/Chiefs: With his rock-solid build, Darnold certainly possesses a more prototypical frame than Montana, who checked in at 6-2, 200 pounds. Montana's greatest physical attribute was his accuracy, including on the move. Of course, he is best known as "Joe Cool" for his composure in critical moments, including a sterling 4-0 record in the Super Bowl. At least to this point, Darnold's similar poise and instinctive play when the lights are shining brightest warrant the lofty comparison.
IN OUR VIEW: There is no denying that Darnold struggled early in the 2017 season, throwing two interceptions in each of USC's first three games as the Trojans dealt with massive turnover on offense. Darnold threw for a very respectable 17 touchdowns to just three interceptions since September, however, and was the obvious difference in USC's 31-28 win over Stanford and its Heisman Trophy finalist Bryce Love in the Pac-12 championship game.
To be clear, Darnold has his warts -- an elongated throwing motion is the biggest concern -- but he is accurate (including on the move), athletic and tough. He also comes with a pro-caliber build, offense and media market, making the projection to the next level simpler than most of his competition. Simply put, he possesses the best mix of talent and intangibles of any draft-eligible quarterback in the country.