The Beach Boy QB|
Oct. 27, 2016
by Katie Ryan, USC Assistant Sports Information Director
It’s just another warm and sunny day in Sam Darnold’s hometown of San Clemente, Calif. This small south Orange County beach community charms its visitors with towering palm trees, perfect waves and breathtaking sunsets. When he has free time from football and school, you may see Darnold driving to the Board & Brew sandwich shop on Avenida Pico. He’ll pick up a chicken club, drench it in orange sauce and make his way back down to the beach.
He will drive down the curvy streets of San Clemente until he reaches the highly secluded Lasuen Beach. Darnold will walk down an almost hidden path located between homes covered with foliage. Upon exiting the steep dirt path, he arrives at a small, peaceful beach with two volleyball courts overlooking the ocean. Darnold will kick off his flip flops to walk in the warm sand and hang out with his longtime friends. He will typically see people he knows, but these days, more people recognize him.
Since being named the starting quarterback at USC just more than a month ago and less than one month into his redshirt freshman season, his anonymity outside of San Clemente is quickly disappearing.
Darnold, however, will always be a product of the beach community that shaped him -- and that product has ignited the explosive Trojan offense and helped turn around USC’s 2016 season.
With just four starts under his belt, Darnold is quickly establishing himself as one of the premier signal callers in college football. At 6-foot-4, 225 pounds, his powerful arm and quick feet are a threat to every opponent’s defense. He is a unique quarterback with an athleticism that USC hasn’t had for many years.
He has completed 100-of-150 (66.7%) passes this year for 1,334 yards and has rushed for 137 yards. He has thrown for 13 touchdowns and has rushed for two more. He has averaged 299.5 yards passing per game since being named the starter in the Trojans’ fourth game this year, a heartbreaking loss at Utah.
He then led USC to big wins over Arizona State, Colorado and at Arizona two weeks ago. Following the blow out win in Tucson, Darnold ranked first in the nation with a quarterback rating of 91.3 -- in front of Louisville’s Lamar Jackson (90.9) and Washington’s Jake Browning (89.7), quarterbacks for top 7 teams.
Coaches, broadcasters and fans alike have noted his poise on the field. He attributes his composure to growing up in a beach culture.
“The beach culture I was raised in definitely influenced the way I act,” said Darnold, a communication major. “I guess it is something that has transferred over to the field. I think keeping an even keel the whole game is something that is super important as a quarterback.”
Darnold also credits his family as an influence on his self-described “chill” demeanor.
“My whole family, my parents and grandparents, taught me that whatever I do is in my control and whatever people think isn’t,” he said. “I think that’s where my confidence comes from, just being completely okay with who I am.”
His big sister, Frankie, has had a significant impact on the young quarterback’s life.
“We’re super close,” said Darnold. “She’s helped me with a lot of things throughout my life and taught me a lot. She taught me how to take care of priorities like school and sports, which is key. She’s taught me how to be a better person. Seeing the way she grew up was really interesting, and she was really good for me to learn from because she did it the right way.”
Frankie, who played volleyball at Rhode Island, continuously gives Darnold advice.
“She’s talked to me about a lot of things: girls, school, sports and keeping my priorities in line,” he said.
Early on, Frankie saw Darnold’s potential and knew he had a high ceiling.
“I think she always kind of saw how far I’d go,” he said. “It was motivating knowing that. She’s definitely helped me a ton, and I couldn’t be more grateful for her.”
Darnold was a bit of a diamond in the rough as a prep football player at San Clemente. Though he threw for just under 3,000 yards and 39 touchdowns as a senior, a broken foot early in his junior kept him out of the national spotlight until USC had locked him up.
Not that it may have mattered much, as Darnold was a Trojan fan his entire life. Both of his parents were athletes, but it was his grandfather, Dick Hammer, who played basketball at USC and helped the Trojans reach their last Final Four in 1954. Hammer was also a 1964 U.S. Olympic volleyball player before becoming an actor in film and commercials. If you’ve heard of the Marlboro Man, well, you know Darnold’s granddad.
Darnold, clearly destined to become a Trojan, is a competitor, plain and simple. This quality extends beyond the football field.
“You should watch me play some beach volleyball. I get after it,” Darnold said with a laugh. “I’m definitely competitive in all aspects of life: on the field and in the classroom. I’m just super competitive in everything I do.”
Darnold’s competitive nature was revealed early on when he elected to finish his senior year at San Clemente, while knowing another highly decorated incoming freshman quarterback was enrolling early at USC during the spring semester.
“It was kind of an easy decision honestly,” said Darnold. “I don’t want to make that sound bad, but it was. I wanted to play basketball, have a normal senior year, go to prom and do all the things that a normal kid would do. I just knew when I got here that I’d have to push myself and do all I could to be a great player. I didn’t really think about it too much.”
This confidence has rolled over into the redshirt freshman’s on-field play, where he comes across mature beyond his years. His body language during a game reveals this. He appears to have no fear, and he leaves no doubt that he’s in complete control of the game.
With his new role as the USC quarterback, Darnold realizes that he now is a member of an elite brotherhood of Trojan quarterbacks and is viewed differently than before.
“I’ve been to a couple camps that my high school has held, and it’s really fun to see the faces the kids make,” he said. “They look at me like I’m Kobe or something. The way I’m viewed has really changed. It makes me look at things a little differently, and it makes me feel good about myself knowing that these kids look up to me. It also forces me to act more mature. When the kids come up to me, I just want to play catch with them and make them happy. I didn’t realize how big of an impact just playing catch with someone can be, but now I do.”
Though Darnold is now in the spotlight, he still views himself as the same beach-town kid he was before. He will still be the guy to say he’s “stoked” to be home as he throws up a “hang loose” hand sign. He will still be the guy to drive home to visit his dog Libby and play basketball on the half-court in his backyard.
“Being able to go home to San Clemente is a really good opportunity for me to remember my roots,” said Darnold. “I’m never going to take growing up where I did for granted. It’s a part of me.”