If you’re a casual football fan, do you see two overhyped quarterbacks who have underachieved?
USC’s Darnold and UCLA’s Rosen entered the season as sure things and have become the ultimate college football quarterback Rorschach test. Perceptions of the two seem to fluctuate weekly, but when their teams meet Saturday (8 p.m. ET on ABC and ESPN App) in what will be their first — and possibly only — collegiate encounter, the battle for Los Angeles could very well turn into the battle for the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft.
“They will be running NFL teams shortly,” said Washington co-defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake.
That’s the consensus among a number of coaches familiar with Darnold and Rosen.
In college football, there’s a tendency to obsess over stats without fully comprehending the exact story behind them. Darnold and Rosen have been meticulously — and sometimes mercilessly — analyzed this season, but those who follow them most closely in the college game don’t bat an eye after watching them play.
“Hopefully they both decide to enter the draft and move on to the next level after this year,” said Stanford defensive coordinator Lance Anderson, who faced both quarterbacks this season.
If both decide to leave college early and enter the NFL draft, they will undoubtedly be two of the first players selected. There’s little question about their talent, but they’ve been polarizing figures in the quarterbacking world because of their on-field inconsistencies. Darnold has No. 11 USC (9-2) in the Pac-12 championship game but on the outside of the College Football Playoff. Rosen is trying to lead UCLA (5-5) to a bowl berth.
So how do coaches and scouts look past the stats when evaluating Darnold and Rosen? It’s easy: They really look at the film and each quarterback’s supporting cast.
Last season, Darnold came off the bench to throw for 3,086 yards with 31 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He went 9-1 as a starter and guided the Trojans to a 52-49 Rose Bowl win over Penn State. He entered this season as the Heisman Trophy favorite. Yet, last week’s win over Colorado was his first game this season without turning the ball over.
Darnold has admitted to forcing passes and not taking what defenses have given him at times. But as coaches around the country have pointed out, a banged-up offensive line and a dearth of NFL-caliber receiving talent has burdened Darnold, who also dealt with a sprained ankle for more than a month this season.
“It doesn’t matter if Tom Brady is the quarterback for Oregon State, if he doesn’t have a line that can block and he doesn’t have guys to throw to, then you’re going to have certain things to do [as a defensive coordinator] to game plan, even though he’s ultra-talented,” said a Pac-12 defensive coordinator, who has faced both Darnold and Rosen over the last two seasons.
“A quarterback can’t do it all himself, and maybe right now [they’re] trying to do it all.”
USC offensive coordinator Tee Martin met a question about Darnold’s perceived struggles with a smile that hinted at annoyance. For starters, he liked his young quarterback (Darnold is a redshirt sophomore) forcing what he thought were NFL throws to unseasoned receivers because it showed the trust he had in his young teammates. It was a way to build chemistry and put more responsibility on a group that Darnold was bringing along on the fly.
It’s also showing how much Darnold trusts his arm. To Martin, who was a national-championship-winning quarterback at Tennessee in 1998, he has a quarterback who is making NFL throws to college players.
“Three or four [forced passes], I can live with because you’re competing and you want to give a guy a chance to make a play and it’s 50-50,” Martin said. “Some of them have gone our way, some of them haven’t gone our way, but I don’t want to take that from him.”
As one Pac-12 defensive coordinator told ESPN, even Darnold’s inconsistencies didn’t deter an NFL scout from telling him that he’d be shocked if Darnold wasn’t the first pick in next year’s draft. “Every time I see him play, I see a really good player,” the coordinator said. “That [scout] kind of confirmed it.”
UCLA coach Jim Mora agreed with Martin’s assessment and he believes the same can be said for Rosen. He sees elite players looking to make elite plays that aren’t always there. Mora, who has an extensive NFL background, sees two early-round draft picks who are processing things like NFL quarterbacks would.
“They’re both very intelligent and they see the game the way a quarterback is supposed to see the game,” Mora said. “I can tell you this: I will always take a young man that is aggressive and has that type of attitude over somebody who doesn’t. You can teach them to improve their decision-making, but I don’t know that you can always teach competitiveness and I love [Rosen’s] competitiveness.”
During the month of September, Rosen led the nation with 427 passing yards per game and 17 touchdowns to just five interceptions. In a season-opening win over Texas A&M, he helped the Bruins erase a 34-point, third-quarter deficit with 292 yards and four touchdowns in the fourth quarter.
However, his numbers have dipped. He’s thrown four touchdowns to four interceptions in his last three-and-a-half games. He suffered a concussion and was taken out in the third quarter of the Washington game on Oct. 28 and missed the following game against Utah. Rosen has had to work with a depleted offense — injuries have mounted at receiver and his top two tight ends went down — and keep up with a defense surrendering a 38.6 points per game.
Washington State defensive coordinator Alex Grinch said his plan against Darnold was to constantly jam receivers at the line to slow down routes, giving his front seven more time to gash USC’s banged-up offensive line. The Cougars held Darnold to a career-low 164 yards as a starter with an interception and a game-sealing fumble in a 30-27 win, but Grinch said he never assumed Darnold would grow careless.
“He has that innate ability to find that receiver that’s breaking open at that exact time that he does,” said Grinch. “He has a real command when you look at him.”
As for Rosen, Lake is impressed by how effortlessly he delivered passes and how frequently he made the toughest passes look easy. He also thinks that Rosen gets the ball out faster than Darnold.
“He has all the arm talent you could you could think of — he makes every single throw,” Lake said. “I am 100 percent positive any coach in the National Football League will think once they get their hands on him, they’ll be able to mold him into whatever type of quarterback they like to have for their system. He’ll be for sure one of the best quarterbacks we face, if not the best quarterback we face this year.
“If he sees a throw that’s supposed to be covered, he’s going to throw it anyway because he believes in his arm talent, as he should.”
Where Darnold holds a big edge over Rosen is movement outside of the pocket.
“He’s definitely more athletic than I am,” Rosen said.
Don’t let his 6-foot-4, 220-pound frame fool you: Darnold has wheels and wiggle. He isn’t Reggie Bush, but he certainly isn’t Jared Lorenzen.
Darnold has a QBR of 68.2 on passes outside the pocket, completing 55.8 percent of his passes with a nation-leading six touchdowns with two interceptions. He’s also averaging 7.8 yards per attempt and has a nation-best 603 yards, 11 completions of 20-plus yards and 27 first downs. Darnold has 169 scramble yards and ranks sixth nationally with nine scrambles of 10-plus yards.
“You just see how he bobs and weaves in the pocket,” said Lake. “If the throw’s not there, he can easily scramble and get first downs.”
Darnold said that he thinks he’s been dangerous on the move because of playing different sports and different positions in football through his high school years. He isn’t afraid to take off running and or get physical in order to grind out an extra yard or two.
“If you went into an alley to get into a fistfight, you want Sam with you,” said a Power 5 assistant who recruited Darnold and Rosen in high school. “If you went into a math or a chess match, you want Josh with you.”
Rosen isn’t a statue, but he’s not comfortable outside the pocket, where he has a QBR of 7.8, is completing 35.3 percent of his passes, averages 3.2 yards per attempt and has thrown three touchdowns to one interception.
However, both Darnold and Mora complimented Rosen’s in-pocket movement. Mora said he is impressed by Rosen’s ability to feel pressure in the pocket and step up and back. Darnold called Rosen’s pocket anticipation “top-notch.”
“I like to call it sneaky athleticism because when he’s back there he’s kind of just moving pretty methodically and then when he needs to move it’s really violent,” Darnold said.
A Power 5 assistant who recruited both quarterbacks said the thing that originally drew him to Rosen was how quickly his off-field intelligence translated to the playing field. It was almost as if Rosen was playing a game within a game with opposing coaches and what they drew up.
“He has the confidence that most defensive coordinators don’t like because he’ll challenge a defensive coordinator and he’s overly confident with it,” the assistant said. “It kind of hurts him sometimes and sometimes it makes him look like a genius.
“He’s phenomenal, though. I’ve never been around a quarterback so talented in my entire life. Josh has eyes in the back of his head, I swear.”
When it comes to pure passing ability, most coaches who spoke to ESPN gave Rosen the advantage. When it came to the intangibles, especially mobility, Darnold won out. As far as who should be drafted first, coaches were split, which might add another layer to Saturday’s game.
They’ll be observed intently for how they play in what is arguably the best matchup of pure quarterback talent college football has to offer.
“It’s awesome and it’s a really, really cool storyline to be linked with Josh, being in the same class come out of high school and all that stuff,” Darnold said. “When it comes down to it, it’s just two quarterbacks competing … and we just happen to be really good players.”