LOS ANGELES — USC coach Clay Helton was recently razzing Neil Callaway, the Trojans’ offensive line coach
“In that Rose Bowl, we had zero sacks,” Helton reminded Callaway, “but probably could have been sacked 12 times.”
They knew one reason why quarterback Sam Darnold was not brought to the ground against Penn State: Darnold himself.
“He just got out of pressure situations and made really special plays,” Helton said. “And that’s one of the reasons that makes him special.”
One of the questions for USC this training camp centers on its offensive line and how well it can protect Darnold when its season begins next month. The Trojans lost three of their five starters from last season’s team, a development that will leave them starting at least two new offensive tackles and a new left guard.
Of course, an inexperienced offensive line can pose problems. Will it create enough of a push against an opposing defensive line to aid its running backs? Will it leave the quarterback with enough time to deliver accurate passes?
But if the Trojans’ offense has any assurance in the case its young offensive line struggles or takes time to develop, it’s that Darnold was uniquely adept last season at making throws despite pressure from opposing defenses. In 2016, Darnold’s Total Quarterback Rating when pressured was 68.1, according to ESPN, the highest among Power 5 Conference passers. The second-highest Total QBR was Nebraska’s Tommy Armstrong Jr. at 56.3.
“Every time you have a good quarterback as the triggerman, it always give you insurance,” said Tyson Helton, USC’s quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator. “‘Hey, it’ll be OK. He’s going to take care of you if things break down. He’ll make it happen.’”
Darnold was adept at avoiding the pass rush, as well, sacked only six times in 10 games as the starter.
“It’s a sense of relief, because he can also run if a protection breaks,” Nico Falah, a redshirt senior who started the final 12 games at center last season, said of Darnold’s presence. “Hopefully it doesn’t break down, but he’ll pull some strings and get out of the situation.
Added right guard Viane Talamaivao, “We have full trust in him, but our job is to make sure he doesn’t get too much pressure. We want him to sit in the pocket, eat a sandwich, and chill out, and do what he does.”
Often, Darnold looked unflinching in the pocket, even amid a heavy pass rush.
Darnold has stayed…