LOS ANGELES — Mike Darnold noticed their glances.
Steve Sarkisian, Clay Helton and Marques Tuiasosopo were standing apart on Howard Jones Field, observing a high school quarterback named Sam Darnold complete one pass after another on a midweek day in late June 2014.
USC’s summer camp had turned into an audition for Darnold. The coaches took notice.
“I remember those guys looking toward each other,” said Mike, Sam’s dad, who watched from one sideline, “and thinking this is going well.”
Sam Darnold, who was entering his senior season at San Clemente High, needed to impress. USC had not yet offered him a scholarship, and he had a limited track record. He had played only 12 varsity games, with only five starts at quarterback. He missed most of his junior season because of a broken foot.
That made his throwing session in front of Sarkisian, Helton and the others on the Trojans’ staff all the more consequential. It afforded them a rare chance to watch Darnold.
“There just wasn’t a ton of tape,” said Helton, then USC’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.
For Sarkisian, it was the first time he had watched Darnold work out in person. It was Helton who, on a recruiting swing in Orange County earlier that spring, visited Darnold to see him loft passes after recovering from his foot injury.
Later, Helton encouraged Darnold to throw at the camp on campus.
“Coaches want to set up situations that they want to see quarterbacks throw in,” said Adam Gorney, a national recruiting analyst for Rivals.com. “It’s on their turf, so they get to set the rules. They can put him though the drills that they find valuable. They all get a sense for him at once.”
Making the pitch
About a week before the camp, Helton called Jaime Ortiz, the football coach at San Clemente High. While the Trojans had not extended Darnold a scholarship offer then, they kept recruiting him, still in search of a second quarterback for their recruiting class. Ortiz received the phone call before one of the varsity team’s workouts. He handed his cell phone to Mike, who was nearby.
Mike recalled the pitch.
“Are you still open to considering us?” Helton asked.
Mike explained that Sam had recently narrowed a list of the schools he was considering. Plus, they were about to take a five-day trip for the end of the month for visits, using a AAA travel agent to handle the tight schedule. But Mike said he’d talk to Sam. The call ended. They’d talk later.