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After a change at QB, USC hopes Sam Darnold can provide a spark

Freshman Sam Darnold, making his starting debut at Utah, completed 18 of 26 passes for 253 yards and ran for a touchdown. Boyd Ivey/Icon Sportswire

LOS ANGELES -- Sam Darnold remembers the game vividly. Clay Helton, then USC's offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, was on the sideline to see him play as a senior at San Clemente High.

Darnold was already committed to USC at that point and knew Helton would be there, but those things did nothing to prevent butterflies from creeping into his gut when he saw Helton standing there.

"I remember going in [to the locker room] and coming back out, seeing him again and being super nervous," Darnold said. "Like, 'Oh my gosh, there's my college coach.' I was really nervous."

Once the game started, however, nerves were not an issue.

The way San Clemente coach Jaime Ortiz remembers it, Darnold completed all 12 of his pass attempts for roughly 180 yards and five touchdowns in the first half and on his way to the locker room he had a brief exchange with Helton.

"Coach Helton looked at me and said, 'I've never seen a kid do that,'" Ortiz said. "I said, 'Coach, neither have I.'"

Helton's memory of that night is even better.

"Thirteen for 13 for five touchdowns," Helton corrected. "I'll never forget it."

"I just remember how ultra-competitive he was. There's a USC offensive coordinator there to watch you, you know it, and to put on that type of show -- there's been no stage that's been too big for him. He just performs."

Those traits factored into Helton's surprising decision last week to bench redshirt junior Max Browne -- another player Helton recruited -- in favor of Darnold, a redshirt freshman, after just three games. Helton caught some heat for the decision, but it was quickly justified by how Darnold performed in his first career start at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

Three first-half turnovers proved costly in the 31-27 loss to now-No. 18 Utah, but with Darnold on the field the offense moved ball as well as it has at any point over the last several seasons. USC averaged 7.9 yards per play, which is the most it has averaged against a Power 5 opponent since an 8.23 clip in a 44-17 win against Washington State in 2014.

Darnold completed 18 of 26 passes for 253 yards and added 41 yards rushing on nine carries that included a touchdown. For a freshman making his first start, he played about as well as USC could have reasonably hoped for and provided a much-needed bright spot for a team desperately in need of something positive to cling to.

For USC redshirt freshman walk-on receiver Jake Russell, though, it was also the type of performance he has gotten used to seeing from one of his best friends over the years. Russell and Darnold have been through a lot together. They met as fifth graders on the same basketball team and later played both football and basketball together at San Clemente. Had Russell not accompanied Darnold on one of his recruiting visits to USC, he likely would not have been offered the chance to walk on the team.

In the days leading up to the Utah game, Russell didn't notice anything different about his Darnold's demeanor.

"He was the same laid-back guy -- calm, focused," Russell said. "Every night he would be on his iPad still listening to music, but would be in his play-book and watching their defense. He's a good mix of calm and easy-going, but at the same time, focused and dedicated to football first and foremost."

With Darnold now entrenched in the starting role, the Trojans offense will likely evolve to take better advantage of his athletic skill set. He's not the type of player who is going to break away from a defense, but he certainly has the ability to extend plays and regularly pick up first downs on the run.

Before Darnold's junior year at San Clemente, Ortiz decided to go away from the pro-style offense the school had run for years in favor of a zone-read scheme he felt would better utilize Darnold's strengths. That offseason he and members of his staff spent three days at the University of Arizona visiting with Wildcats coach Rich Rodriguez to learn the finer points of the zone-read. He also spent time learning from former UCLA offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone and Utah co-offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick specifically to develop an offense for Darnold.

"It definitely brings a different element. As a defensive coach, it's hard enough to defend a guy that can sit back and throw the ball," said Ortiz, who also spent time with the USC staff this offseason. "You saw the QB draw they ran against Utah for Sam's rushing TD. That's a whole different facet of the game that USC hasn't had in the past and that something Coach Helton will definitely take advantage of."

His mobility will be especially important Saturday when USC hosts Arizona State (4-0) at the Coliseum as the Trojans hope to avoid their first 1-4 start since 2001. Sun Devils coach Todd Graham is well-known for bringing constant pressure, but Ortiz isn't one to be concerned.

"What you saw on Friday night is just the beginning of what he'll be able to do," Ortiz said. "He's just scratching the surface."