USC football: Sam Darnold adjusting to life in the spotlight
LOS ANGELES — Southern California quarterback Sam Darnold had nowhere to go, an unfamiliar position given his penchant for avoiding pressure as a redshirt freshman.
However, there was no eluding the cameras and audio recorders in front of Darnold at Pac-12 media days Thursday. Not for the mandatory 25-minute interview availability, not during a less formal but equally crowded session after lunch.
"It's not uncomfortable. I mean, it's just, I don't know . It's not that uncomfortable," Darnold said. "It's definitely a new thing that I am going to have to get used to."
Darnold was the brightest star at the conference's two-day countdown to the upcoming season, held in a ballroom in the heart of Hollywood. The Trojans were the overwhelming favorite to win the Pac-12 South in the annual media poll, and garnered 28 of 52 votes to win the conference title, something USC has not done since 2008.
Darnold is the odds-on favorite in Las Vegas to win the Heisman Trophy and touted as the likely first-overall pick in the 2018 NFL draft, roles he could not have imagined one year ago when he was preparing to compete for the starting job in training camp.
Only when USC had lost two of its first three games would Darnold get the nod. After losing his first start, Darnold would lead USC to nine straight wins to close out the season, capped off by a last-second win in the Rose Bowl against Big Ten champion Penn State.
Darnold is now one of college football's biggest names. The media obligations that come with that mantle might not come naturally to him, but Darnold is treating them with the same deliberate approach that allowed him to throw for 3,086 yards and 31 touchdowns against nine interceptions last season.
"I think I've prepared my whole life for this, but at the same time I never knew it was going to get like this," Darnold said. "This opportunity doesn't come around all that often so you have really got to take advantage of it. I think that's kind of been the story line throughout my whole football career is just taking advantage of opportunities when they are given to me. I'm not trying to blow this one."
Besides the usual questions about goals for the upcoming season, a rebuilding offensive line or potential standouts at wide receiver, Darnold was asked about the idea that NFL teams might tank to be able to draft him.
"It's humbling. I embrace that topic of conversation, but ultimately that's not in my control," he said. "I try to just put it aside as best I can."
There was also a query about whether Darnold is the best quarterback in college football.
"I'm confident for sure, but I don't think that's up to me to decide," he said. "I'm going to go out there every day and play to the best of my ability, but I'm not here to say whether I'm the best or not."
Darnold consulted with former USC superstar signal-callers Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart about life in the spotlight, but neither of those Heisman winners had to deal with omnipresent social media. Being careful at all times about what he says and does is the one lesson Darnold wishes he'd had before being vaulted onto magazine covers and digital screens.
But it was coach Clay Helton's words that had the biggest impact on how Darnold deals with opposing defenses on the field and his newfound celebrity away from it.
"I think the biggest piece of advice is just to continue to be myself and not really change for anyone or any situation that might come my way," Darnold said.