Starting Job? For Now, Sam Darnold Is Just Holding On Tight

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Sam Darnold held the ball with two hands. Before the Jets’ second minicamp practice Wednesday, the No. 3 overall pick worked solo with assistant quarterbacks coach Mick Lombardi as a team cameraman kept close watch. Darnold took a series of five- and seven-step dropbacks before tossing the ball to Lombardi, who was running simple flat, cross and hitch routes. And each time, Darnold’s left hand stayed on the ball until the very last second.

At USC last season, Darnold fumbled 12 times in 14 games. “When we went on a visit during the draft period, he even discussed that with us and talked about how he’d been training with Jordan [Palmer],” offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates says. “You watch every play now and he’s in there with two hands on the ball pushing up in the pocket.”

It’s one of the many adjustments teammates and coaches have noticed from their new QB. He’s more wary of a defender jumping a pass to the flat. He’s figuring out that you need to throw receivers open rather than waiting for them to create separation. He’s taking the heat off his throws when necessary. “He’s able to go watch himself on film to see what he did wrong and move forward,” Bates says. “That’s the process of growing. That’s exciting.”

As Bates sees it, there’s no set blueprint for bringing along the quarterback of the future. An assistant head coach at USC in 2009, Bates felt comfortable starting Matt Barkley as a true freshman (“Matt earned it,” Bates explained at the time). In Denver, as a QB coach three years earlier, Bates nurtured Jay Cutler on the bench for 12 weeks before Mike Shanahan decided to elevate the rookie.

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With Darnold, the first decision Bates and Todd Bowles had to make was how to teach him the offense, piece by piece or all at once. They decided to dump it all on him, just as they’ve done with Josh McCown and Teddy Bridgewater. “If he can handle it and prove he’s the starter, then that will take place when the time comes,” Bates says. For now though, the coach is quick to point out “there’s no depth chart” while the rest of the team goes out of the way to avoid any judgment.

“Y’all want me to evaluate the quarterbacks?” defensive coordinator Kacy Rodgers joked after following Bates at the podium Wednesday. “I think they all can play.” Asked to compare the QBs, wideout Quincy Enunwa responded” “They all do great things.” Pressed for more, he said, “Sam has a really strong arm … but so does Josh.”

Enunwa, sidelined last year by a bulging disc in his neck, won’t participate in team drills until training camp. With free agent pickup Terrelle Pryor (ankle) also still on the mend, evaluating the quarterbacks is that much harder. Wednesday’s results were mixed for Darnold. He fumbled a snap during the drills portion of the afternoon and dropped another during the 11-on-11 portion. But he also went 4-for-4 in a full team session later, completing a touchdown throw to tight end Jordan Leggett. He had another nice throw fall through receiver Tre McBride’s hands.

During the final practice period, Darnold was given the last set of snaps in a simulated two-minute drive. He mixed an overthrow and a tipped pass with a dart down the seam and a perfectly executed screen play. On the absolute last play, he stood in shotgun on fourth down. Dropping back, he put both hands securely in position and he kept them there as he climbed the pocket. He surveyed his options … and was smothered by the rush. Darnold’s next lesson: When to stop holding onto the ball.

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There comes a time each August when beat writers nationwide—having by this point slash-and-burned every possible angle for training camp stories—describe how a mix of dog-days heat and preseason excitement spark on-field testiness between teammates. Well, the Jets aren’t waiting.

At times on a cloudy day in June, amidst a three-day minicamp that is over as soon as it starts, the offense and defense made the Atlantic Health Jets Training Center feel like the site of a late-November rivalry game. Twice, players needed to be separated at the end of plays. Safety Jamal Adams cheered each instance, and often called out pass-catchers from the sideline between his reps. “We’ve got some guys who are unanimous all-trash-talking team,” Bowles says. “We’ve got about seven or eight of them … coaches included.” Bowles is cool with most of it—“If it’s spirited it’s fine, it’s part of football,” he says—but practice was interrupted twice when defensive players touched a quarterback during drills. “We don’t touch the quarterback in shorts and t-shirts,” Bowles said after practice. “Ever.”


Father’s Day is Sunday, and Rodgers, the defensive coordinator, should have plenty to celebrate with his son. Undrafted out of Miami in 2013, defensive back Kacy Rodgers II worked his way up from a Canadian Football League practice roster to a spot on the Jets’ 90-man roster. After getting to watch only one of his son’s high school games in-person, they now work together on a daily basis. “It’s kind of a blessing, it really is,” the elder Rodgers says. “I have to guard myself because I know if he makes a play, Coach Bowles will be looking at me.”


Midway through practice, the special teams unit gathered for a drill that consisted of running toward the punter and spiking the ball out of his hands without making any contact with his body. We’re not running across his face, coaches stressed. If you’re on the left, stay on his left. It’s a little thing, but a team taking precious practice time to teach players how to avoid contact in a critical situation is as clear of a sign of today’s shifting game as any I’ve seen this spring.

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