Dennis J. Freeman

Dennis covers the NFL (San Diego Chargers), NBA (Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers), Major League Baseball (Los Angeles Dodgers) and NCAA sports (USC, UCLA, Long Beach State). As a professional journalist, Dennis has also covered and written on topics such as civil rights, politics and social justice. Dennis is a graduate of Howard University.

HOLLYWOOD-The USC Trojans football team have some lofty expectations they’d like to meet this year. They are considered the team to beat in the Pac-12 Conference. Winning the Pac-12 title is certainly on  the Trojans’ to-do list. Contending for a spot in the national championship game is also a goal for coach Clay Helton’s team.

Helton and the Trojans are relying on the right arm of their stud signal-caller, Sam Darnold,  to get them there. This is a good place these days for the Trojans to be in. USC, ranked No. 4 in preseason rankings,  is back in the Big House of college football. The Trojans and Helton can thank quarterback Darnold for that revival.

“When you come to USC, you welcome those expectations,” said Helton. “We’ve created a lot of momentum and a lot of confidence with what we did last season. And you look and you have guys like Sam Darnold and Cam Smith and Ronald Jones and Deontay Burnett, you have some pieces of the puzzle that are already in place, it makes you very excited for the season coming up. But you’ve also got to know the reality. There are holes we’ve got to plug to take care of two tackle positions, a nose tackle position. There is a lot of work to be done.”

USC quarterback Sam Darnold completed 67 percent of his passes and threw for 31 touchdowns in 2016. Photo by Dennis J. Freeman/News4usonline

Believe it or not, part of Helton’s work description for the Trojans to get better as a team is taking into account of the growth and development of Darnold. The redshirt freshman last season (now redshirt sophomore) whipped the national media  and NFL scouts into a frenzy with his torrid play-inside and outside of the pocket-to lead USC to a stunning Rose Bowl victory against Penn State and a  No. 3 ranking in college football’s final poll.

“With team success, comes individual success,” Darnold said. “I’m not naïve to that. So we have to do well as a team. The whole offense has to be on the same page to play well. Cam (linebacker Cameron Smith) will have to preset the defense, which has to be on the same page  as well. The leaders of our team have done a great job of leading, and the young guys have been hungry to learn. And I think that’s really important when you have a college that wants to win a national championship ultimately.”   

USC quarterback Sam Darnold passed for 358 yards and three touchdowns against Colorado in the Trojans’ 21-17 upset win at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Photo by Dennis J. Freeman/News4usonline

Obviously, to land where the Trojans landed at the end of the season, has to do with a group of men fighting for the same goal. But with any group, there  always have to be a leader. For Helton and USC, that leader is unquestionably Darnold. When you take a look at his stats from a year ago, it is easy to see why Darnold is a pre-season All-American.

Darnold completed 67 percent of his passes, threw for 3,086 yards and passed for 31 touchdowns in helping the Trojans get their mojo back. Part of Darnold’s success has been his calm, deadpan demeanor in the handling of high-stakes pressure like he exhibited in the Trojans’ 52-49 Rose Bowl win against the Nittany Lions.

All he did was passed for 453 yards and five touchdowns and lead USC from a 14-point deficit late in the game to allow the Trojans to come away with a win in the Game of the Year. Fast forward to the second day of the Pac-12 Conference Football Media Days. Helton, Darnold and linebacker Cameron Smith were the representatives for USC.

Of course, all eyes and ears were on Darnold. A swarm of reporters made a bee-line over to where Darnold was holding court. It was the same during lunch and in one-on-one interview session part of the day. There seems to be no getting enough of Darnold, who is up for Walter Camp Player of the Year honors (top player), the Maxwell Award and Davey O’Brien Award (top quarterback). He’s also considered a top candidate for the Heisman Trophy.  Now that’s some pretty heady stuff.

USC quartetback Sam Darnold passed for 453 yards and five touchdowns in leading the Trojans to a 52-49 win against Penn State in the 103rd Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern Mutual. Photo by Dennis J. Freeman/News4usonline.com

Those kind of accolades, though, doesn’t appear to faze Darnold in one way or another. Like the way he shrugs off the highs and lows on the football field, Darnold handles question after question from the media with aplomb and rapid-fire ease. Cool under pressure is perhaps Darnold’s best attribute.

Darnold alluded that having knit-tight relationships keeps him grounded from all the hoopla and hype swirling around him.

“I think the best way to do that is to have a close group of friends and close family  as well, and really communicating with them, ” said Darnold. “I think the moment you lose your connection with your family and your close fiends, that’s the moment you kind of lose yourself.”   

The way that Darnold handles himself-on and off the football field-has not been lost on Helton.

“The thing that I’ve been impressed with Sam is his humbleness and humility in the process,” said Helton. “We all see his skillset, but how he’s approached this off-season from a work-ethic standpoint and trying to progress as a student of the game, our kids see that. Obviously there are some grand expectations for him, but he’s welcomed those. That’s part of being a USC quarterback. That’s why you come to USC. You’re the face of the program and you’re the leader of the program.”

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