Sam Darnold | FINAL EXAM With Steve Fairchild

Football lifer Steve Fairchild has been involved in coaching for over the past 35 years, as head coach of Colorado State (2008-2011), Virginia offensive coordinator (2013-2015), San Diego Chargers Senior Offensive Assistant (2012), Buffalo Bills offensive coordinator (2006-2007), St. Louis Rams offensive coordinator (2003-2005), Buffalo Bills running back coach (2001-2002) and numerous other coaching positions, which began during his time at San Diego Mesa Community College as offensive coordinator in 1982. Along the way, he has coached high-profile quarterbacks such as Marc Bulger, JP Losman and Dan McGwire. This season, Fairchild returns for a second stint in The Spring League, featuring Johnny Manziel, where he’ll be serving as head coach/offensive coordinator. Over the years, coach Fairchild has developed his own in-depth grading system which entails 15 different categories that projects how successful a quarterback prospect will be when transitioning from college to the pros. Each category is given a score from 1-10 based on film study of five-to-six games, with ten being the highest score (exceptional/elite) and one being the lowest (poor/inadequate). Coach Fairchild has agreed to put the top quarterback prospects in the 2018 NFL Draft through his ‘FINAL EXAM’ in an exclusive NFL Draft Bible series, which includes an overall grade (maximum of 150) and projection for each top signal-caller. This is the fifth part of a six-part series, featuring the top signal-callers in the 2018 NFL Draft. The second ranked quarterback prospect, according to Fairchild, is Sam Darnold of USC.



School: USC | Hometown: Capistrano Beach, CA | Number: 14 | Date of Birth: 06/05/97 | Height: 6033 | Weight: 221 | Hand: 0938 | Arm: 3100 | Forty: 4.85 | Vertical: 26.5” | Broad: 8-9 | Shuttle: 4.40 | L-Drill: 6.96 | Year: Junior


Heavily recruited coming out of San Clemente (CA) High School, Sam Darnold chose to play collegiately at USC, where he would go on to become one of the most prolific passers in Trojans history. As a redshirt freshman starter, he set multiple USC freshman records, led the Trojans to eight consecutive wins, and won the 2017 Rose Bowl. He would follow up with an encore performance his sophomore season, throwing for 4,143 yards (single season school record) in 14 games, while leading USC to a Pac-12 Championship. Darnold would finish his career averaging more than two touchdown passes per game (57 total in 27 games; 24 starts) on his way to solidifying himself as one of the top overall prospects in the nation. Should Darnold start a NFL game in 2018, he would be the second youngest quarterback ever to do so in league history. (Tommy Maddox).


Size & Athletic Ability

Sam Darnold possesses ideal size and appears to have a powerful build. At 6-3, he sees the field well from the pocket, moves very well for his size and displays both change of direction, in addition to top-end speed. He plays strong in the pocket and can break tackles that are not fully wrapped up. His speed and athleticism will be an asset at the NFL level when making designed, out of the pocket or scramble type throws. GRADE: 8.0

Statistics & Production

He only played two seasons at USC. During his first season in 2016, Darnold had an exceptional 31 touchdowns and just nine Interceptions. However, in 2017 there were ball security issues, as he tossed 13 Interceptions, along with 11 fumble (nine fumbles in 2016). The 2016 team surrounded him with more talent than he had in 2017. Darnold was asked to be the focal point of his offensive system every season and produced well. GRADE: 7.5

Arm Ability & Throwing Mechanics

Darnold drops the ball on the take back part of his throwing motion—this generally slows down his delivery and adds some inconsistency in terms of accuracy. However, it doesn’t appear to be an issue for him, as the ball comes out quickly (not elite quick) and overall, he throws the ball with consistent accuracy. He displays excellent balance most of the time in the pocket. Darnold does tend to get up on his toes occasionally when he sets up and this causes him to bounce when trying to throw or move his launch point. This can make him slightly late with the ball. He possesses the arm strength to make every NFL throw and does show the ability to anticipate and throw his receivers open. He can throw off a variety of platforms and can make throws with minimal lower body involvement. Darnold is a good, not exceptional thrower when he is throwing on time to primary receivers. He is a very good thrower when the play calls for him to alter his platform, launch point or target line. This is a majority of the game in the NFL. He is also exceptional throwing on the run. GRADE: 8.0


His mechanics are sound and balanced, as Darnold shows good footwork and agility with drops and moving around in the pocket; he is more powerful than smooth. He plays with a wide base and a slightly low ball position while dropping back and operating in the pocket but this looks natural for him (his build may contribute to this). Darnold can operate from the gun and under center equally well, in addition to showing adequate athleticism, which allows him to get his body aligned to his target. He also shows the ability to change target lines with continued baseline fundamentals. A strong player in the pocket with great strength (particularly his lower body strength). GRADE: 8.0

Quick Game Performance/Accuracy (Three-Step)

The Trojans signal-caller worked efficiently with his quick game throws over the past two seasons. This was a largely in part due to his offense, particularly in 2017.  Stature helped him do these throws under center and the dip in his delivery did not appear to be a factor in terms of him being able to distribute the ball quickly when throwing these concepts. He made good decisions and threw the ball well with good production when making 3 step drop type throws. GRADE: 8.5

Quick Game Performance/Accuracy (Five-Step)

Darnold showed the ability to throw on time and anticipate throws when using five-step (three-step from shotgun) drop. He did an outstanding job of making these throws while having to negotiate a launch point in the pocket. He’s a strong player that can make these throws with defenders in his lap and appeared to be able to process information quickly, while making smart, fast decisions with these types of pass game concepts. GRADE: 8.0

Intermediate Throw Performance/Accuracy (Seven-Step)

This was not a big part of his offensive system at USC in 2017. At times, Darnold was able to demonstrate the ability to get the ball downfield into this 16-to-20-yard range. These types of throws were not common in many games. Other games they were more than just a part of the game plan—he did these throws off some run-action type drops. He possesses the arm strength and anticipation to make these type of NFL throws and is willing to stand in the pocket or move in the pocket to let them develop. This part of his game will translate well to the NFL. GRADE: 8.5

Deep Ball Performance/Accuracy (35+ Yards)

Darnold throws a nice deep ball with accuracy rarely fails to give his receiver an opportunity to make a play on the ball. He shows the ability to throw the outside go route, as well as deep posts and crossing routes. GRADE: 8.0


He appears to see the entire field while operating between the tackles, can process what he sees very rapidly and anticipates throws with good timing. Darnold demonstrates that he can do this with people around him, he can anticipate throws and put the ball in tight windows. He believes in his strength and toughness and has the ability to thrive as a pocket passer at the next level. GRADE: 8.0

Designed Movement Throws

One of the best attributes of Darnold’s overall game is his ability to throw on the move.  He is the “Sundance Kid” of college quarterbacks, as he appears quicker with the ball and equally as accurate when he is on the run. He does a variety of sprint/naked type throws and has a great feel for these types of offensive concepts. He mostly goes right but there is no doubt that with his feet and athletic ability, that he can does this consistently to his left. GRADE: 8.5

Pocket Demeanor & Movement

With his ability to see the field, Darnold has proven that he brings strong pocket awareness and the toughness to hang in there and take a hit in order to complete the pass, while showcasing the patience necessary to allow patterns to develop. Sometimes he’ll leave the pocket early but not because he lacks the feel. Rather, he believes in his scrambling abilities and athleticism in order to extend plays. He will use subtle pocket movement but favors more drastic movement inside the tackle box. This is one area of his game that will need to improve at the next level, as the area of operation for the quarterback will be much smaller for him than it was at USC. GRADE: 8.0

Unique Throws

Darnold can make all the necessary screen type throws with touch and timing. He’s able to make these types of throws while fading his drop and not setting his feet, which he demonstrated this with his play in 2017. He operated RPO schemes and appeared to have the quickness/accuracy to be effective with this type of scheme. He also showed good decision-making with these concepts. GRADE: 7.5

Poise & Performance In Critical Situations

The offensive scheme at USC had Darnold prepared for situational Football. He demonstrated the ability to lead two-minute drives throughout his two-year career. He shows an awareness and ability to adapt to new schemes both in the red zone and in third down situations; he performed well in both these situations. Ball placement throws in the red zone were exceptional and demonstrated a combination of accuracy, decision-making and timing. He appears to be a smart quarterback with a keen understanding of the game. GRADE: 8.5


Darnold is a good decision maker with the football. He isn’t afraid to take a risk or shot at a tight window and can put the ball away from the defender a majority of the time with the throw. He is receiver friendly with his ball placement and also shows he is willing to check the ball down. He is too quick to move big or leave the pocket at times and this effects the play, some good, other times he is passing up on open receivers. GRADE: 8.0

Ability To Scramble/Extend Plays

When Darnold is forced to exit the pocket and scramble, he shows great ability to extend plays and make decisive decisions. He moves extremely well for his size, is strong and can slip out of arm tackles to keep a play alive. He throws accurately on the move and can do these things equally well to his right and left. GRADE: 8.0


Darnold is a highly talented quarterback and possesses a quick enough delivery, despite a dip in his throwing motion. He can make every throw, is an accurate passer and displays the ability to put the ball in tight spots with anticipation. In addition, he shows excellent ability to operate in the pocket with comfort but will have to limit some of the big moves he makes. He’ll need to be more compact in some of his pocket movements and improve his ball security. This is an easy correct with most quarterback coaches. The California native is a tremendous passer when throwing on the move. He has possesses excellent athletic ability for his size, has an NFL type build and plays the game of football with a “toughness” that is impressive to watch. He’s always been a productive player and viewed with a high ceiling. In just two seasons, he has become an attractive top draft pick with little risk. Darnold should be a top five overall selection in the 2018 NFL Draft. OVERALL GRADE: 121