Earlier this week, Sam Darnold’s father reminded him where he was a year ago at this time.
Darnold was in Texas, preparing for the Cotton Bowl with his USC teammates. That game against Ohio State would be his last college game.
“It’s crazy,” Darnold said Wednesday, shaking his head and smiling.
Flash forward 12 months and Darnold has been through a life-changing year. He declared for the draft, went through that entire process, was picked by the Jets third overall and became the youngest quarterback to start his team’s opener in NFL history.
“It’s funny how there’s the dichotomy like it’s flown by,” Darnold told The Post in a one-on-one interview after team meetings. “I feel like everything is happening fast, like ‘oh my gosh, we’re already here in Week 16.’ But at the same time I feel like the Cotton Bowl is so long ago. Even, shoot, Week 1 playing Detroit and playing Cleveland, those games I feel like happened so long ago. It’s pretty crazy how everything’s happened.”
For Jets fans, Darnold is the beacon of hope in another lost season. The Jets are 4-11 entering their season finale against the Patriots on Sunday. This is the team’s third straight losing season and fourth in five years. The Jets have not made the playoffs since 2010 and the organization is about to undergo change again with an expected head coaching switch.
But the end of this season feels different than the past few years. Darnold, 21, has given Jets fans reason to believe, especially in the past three weeks. He looks like the franchise quarterback the Jets have been chasing for decades.
“Obviously, it’s not the year we all wanted but I feel like I’ve personally grown and I feel like this team has grown,” Darnold said. “I’m really just excited about the future and what’s in store for us.”
For Darnold, the immediate future calls for some rest after Sunday’s game in New England. He has been going nonstop since preparing for the draft and then joining the Jets for spring practice and then the season. He plans on taking a week or two off before starting to work out on his own. Darnold will split time between New Jersey and his hometown of San Clemente, Calif.
“I kind of know exactly what I need to do and how I need to get better,” Darnold said.
The jump between Year 1 and Year 2 for NFL quarterbacks is usually as big as the Grand Canyon. Look around the league at Carson Wentz in Philadelphia, Jared Goff in Los Angeles, Patrick Mahomes in Kansas City and Mitch Trubisky in Chicago, all of whom have made that leap in recent years.
Darnold points to the work he did last year with personal QB coach Jordan Palmer, who he plans on working with again this offseason, on cutting down his fumbles as something he hopes to emulate this year. In his last year at USC, Darnold had 12 fumbles, something that was harped on during the draft process. He spent time with Palmer doing drills to keep two hands on the ball. This year, Darnold had one lost fumble and that came on a bad handoff after a high snap. He has had no ball-security issues in the pocket.
“I’m going watch my tape and I’m going to see where I can get better,” Darnold said. “Just like doing all the drills I did with Jordan to keep two hands on the ball in the pocket, it worked. For me, it’s about continuing to find those minute details to continue to get better and keep working on them. It kind of happened this year with the fumbles. I think I can do the same thing with some of the other things in my game.”
The toughest part of his rookie season has been the losing. The last time Darnold had a season like this was his freshman year of high school, when his football team went 2-8.
In Darnold’s 12 games as the starting quarterback, the Jets are 4-8.
“You never plan on losing double-digit games in a season,” Darnold said. “You don’t plan on losing any. Whenever you put so much time and effort into one single game and you go out there and lose, it sucks. When you stack all those losses together, it adds a toll.”
Darnold has had struggles like every rookie quarterback. His 15 interceptions this season are tied for the league-high. But the promise Darnold has shown has far outweighed the negatives. Since returning from a sprained foot this month, he has six touchdowns and just one interception and his quarterback rating is 106.2. The 17 touchdowns he has thrown this season are the most by a Jets rookie since Joe Namath threw 18 in 1965.
“I look back on those wins and how we played and how much potential we had as a team,” Darnold said. “Yeah, we didn’t finish out the way that we wanted, record-wise. It gives you hope as a player, as a fan, as a coach of this team that the future is bright. We were in all of these games, except for Buffalo. As an organization and as a fan base, I feel like everyone should be very hopeful and very excited about where this team is heading.”
You get the feeling that Darnold has only scratched the surface. So much has happened in the last year for him. You can’t help but think about what the next year holds.
“I’ve learned a lot of lessons throughout this whole season, very valuable ones that I’ll take with me forever,” Darnold said. “I’ve learned what not to do and also what to do. I’m very excited about the future.”