There were plenty of superlatives tossed around about the potential of Sam Darnold after his performance in the Rose Bowl win over Penn State, and one of the more educated opinions on the subject came from Matt Leinart, who tweeted out that “Sam Darnold has a chance to go down as one of the greatest Trojans of all-time”.
High praise indeed, especially when it comes from someone like Leinart who most certainly occupies a spot on that all-time greatest Trojans list.
There would normally be a lot of hesitation to rush the hyperbole after only 10 games as a starter but it doesn’t seem like a stretch to put that kind of projection on Sam after what he did in his first year as a college quarterback. Take a look around and you will see Sam as the talk of the NFL combine (when he wasn’t even there), the Heisman Trophy favorite according to Vegas (ahead of the reigning Heisman winner) and a consistent place atop the early 2018 mock drafts.
That kind of wow factor is the reason why the statement from Leinart makes sense about Darnold possibly earning his place as one of the greats in a program that is chock full of them. And when you consider the overall Trojan names that range from Allen to Lott to Polamalu to Yary (and on and on) it’s also natural to start to consider where Darnold is positioning himself solely in the realm of the USC quarterback spot.
For a program that was long-known by the moniker of “Tailback U”, the USC quarterback position has taken center stage in the last 15 years with a run of players that can rival any one position for any school in the history of college football.
When you look at the string of quarterbacks that started with Carson Palmer (photo above), went to Leinart, and has included John David Booty, Mark Sanchez, Matt Barkley, Cody Kessler and now Darnold (not to mention a 10-year pro in Matt Cassel who couldn’t crack the starting line-up at SC) it’s clear that this has been a golden age for the position.
Part of the reason for this recent run of success has been a shift in the college game to an increased emphasis on the passing game. For instance, prior to 2000 the single season touchdown mark at USC was 29, set by Rob Johnson in 1993, that mark has been beaten or tied 10 times in the years since.
That means there are Trojan quarterbacks from years past may not have the glittering numbers as those in recent years but the accomplishments were special nonetheless, with names that include 1945 Rose Bowl MVP Jim Hardy and national champions such as Pete Beathard, Pat Haden and Paul McDonald, as well as Rodney Peete, Todd Marinovich and so many more.
You can basically draw a line to the dramatic shift in passing offense for the Trojans to the day Pete Carroll and Norm Chow walked on campus to begin working with Carson.
For whatever reason (injuries, coaching) things hadn’t completely clicked for Carson prior to Chow’s arrival as the first hire of the Carroll coaching staff. It took a while for Chow and Carson to find a groove together but once they did it resulted in Carson putting the program on his shoulders as the foundation upon which the Carroll era was built, not to mention a Heisman Trophy and eventual top pick in the NFL draft for Carson.
Next came Leinart, a player who didn’t have the powerful arm of Carson but who found a football soulmate with Chow in terms of how they saw the game. Leinart went on a three-year run that included a Heisman Trophy of his own, national championships, legendary moments such as 4th-and-9 and the Bush Push, and an overall resume that can match-up with anyone.
Those two stand at the top of the USC quarterback mountain and I’ve got no desire to pick between them in any way.
Booty was next in line, a player whose accomplishments get underrated sometimes with a pair of Rose Bowl wins under his belt and the career Rose Bowl passing touchdown mark.
We only saw one year from Mark Sanchez as the starter but it was another Rose Bowl win and Mark translated that into a high NFL draft selection.
Barkley spent four years as the starter which resulted in numerous individual records, and he will always be remembered by USC fans for his decision to come back for his senior year during a time when the Trojans were battling the effects of NCAA sanctions.
Kessler put up big numbers as well, including the most passing touchdowns in a game against Notre Dame, always nice to set a mark like that against the Irish.
And now there is Darnold, who has already earned his place on this list with what he’s done in a single year, now it remains to be seen where he will stand by the time his career at USC is finished.
USC quarterbacks (2000-2017)
Carson Palmer (1998, 2000-2002)
Key stat: USC single season record 3,942 passing yards in 2002
Matt Leinart (2003-2005)
Key stat: Averaged over 3,500 passing yards and 33 TD’s for three years
John David Booty (2006-2007)
Key stat: Seven career touchdown passes in Rose Bowl
Mark Sanchez (2008)
Key stat: 34 touchdowns in 2008
Matt Barkley (2009-2012)
Key stat: Pac-12 record 116 career touchdown passes
Cody Kessler (2013-2015)
Key stat: 39 TD in single season, tied Barkley for top USC mark
Sam Darnold (2016)
Key stat: Rose Bowl single game record 473 total yards and five touchdown passes