Surging USC QB Sam Darnold shares similarities with Notre Dame's DeShone Kizer

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Welcome to America’s most imaginary game show, “Name That Quarterback!”

(Cue enthusiastic applause from the studio audience)

Today’s quarterback, currently standing behind Door No. 1, was a consensus four-star recruit out of high school. He’s listed officially at six feet, four inches tall. He sat out his first season at his chosen college. Then, he was thrust into a starting role early in his redshirt freshman season, replacing a more established veteran.

This season, he has thrown 24 touchdown passes with eight interceptions.

(Buzzer sounds)

So, you think you’re ready to name that quarterback? Is that your final answer?

Oh, no. I’m very sorry. Notre Dame junior quarterback DeShone Kizer fits all the provided clues, but he’s currently weighing his NFL future, not standing patiently behind Door No. 1.

The answer we were looking for is USC’s Sam Darnold.

A 6-4, 225-pound redshirt freshman, Darnold took the reins from redshirt junior Max Browne after the Trojans stumbled out to an underwhelming 1-2 start. Since swapping signal callers, USC (8-3) has won seven of its last eight games, including seven straight.

That isn’t a coincidence.

“Sam Darnold, (since) he's been inserted into the lineup, that's been a transformation for that football team offensively,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly. “He's as good as I've seen in a long, long time.

“His escapability, his ability to throw on the run, his accuracy, I don't see anything there that is anything short of brilliant in terms of the way he's playing right now.”

If Kelly were to nitpick, he might point out that Darnold — who will make his ninth career start inside the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum against Notre Dame (4-7) on Saturday — has thrown six interceptions in his last four games, including two each in the last two weeks.

The same daring approach that has fueled Darnold’s early success also leaves him occasionally vulnerable.

“You don’t want to make him a robot,” USC head coach Troy Helton said on the team’s official radio show on Monday. “You don’t want to put the handcuffs on him, because he does so many creative things.”

In that way — and in many others, too — Darnold is comparable to Kizer, who has passed for 24 touchdowns and run for seven more in his second season as the Irish starter.

“(He has an) elite arm, but has the ability to create in the run game and has designed runs for him,” Helton said of Kizer. “You’re talking about a quarterback that already has over 500 yards rushing, and then you see him spreading the ball around to several different receivers.

“He’s a very talented kid and a kid that’ll end up playing on Sundays. He’s the guy that runs the show.”

That’s true also of Darnold, even at the tender age of 19. The Capistrano Beach, Calif., native has passed for 2,428 yards and completed 68.3 percent of his passes (nearly 10 percentage points better than Kizer), while adding 214 rushing yards and two more scores.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that he does much of his work behind the Trojan offensive line, which on Tuesday was named a semifinalist for the Joe Moore Award, presented annually to college football’s premier offensive line. It helps, too, to target a guy like junior wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, who leads the Trojans with 59 catches, 758 receiving yards and eight touchdowns.

But supporting cast aside, Darnold has helped engineer a dramatic turnaround at USC.

That’s impressive enough to win a game show, not to mention plenty of football games.

“It’s just excitement,” Darnold said of the feeling in the Trojan locker room after seven consecutive wins. “After every single game that we win, we sing our song, do our thing and move on.

“We just have to take that mindset every single week, and if we keep doing that, we’ll find ourselves in a good position at the end (of the season).”

mvorel@ndinsider.com

574-235-6428

Twitter: @mikevorel

Southern California quarterback Sam Darnold passes during the first half of an NCAA college football game against UCLA, Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016, in Pasadena, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)