PULLMAN – Luke Falk versus Sam Darnold isn’t a head-to-head duel in literal terms – not in the way Washington State’s defensive line vs. USC’s offensive line is, for example – but that doesn’t make it any less mouth-watering for the quarterback connoisseurs out there.
The routes that WSU’s Falk and USC’s Darnold took to national prominence couldn’t be any more different. Darnold, like every other passer that signs up to play for the Trojans, was a Hesiman Trophy candidate as soon as he stepped on campus. And Falk? Well, it took a few years before folks in Pullman knew his name. That probably includes a few teammates, too. Falk was paying his own bills when he arrived in Pullman and it’s been well-documented that WSU’s athletic director, Bill Moos, didn’t know who the former walk-on was when the two bumped into each other at a catering event Falk was working.
Darnold is finally the Heisman candidate everyone thought he would be and has led the Trojans to 13 straight wins. Falk, whose story still raises eyebrows for people that haven’t heard it, has an outside shot of visiting New York after the season ends and at the very least will shatter a few more Pac-12 records.
That’s the brief summary of what fans are getting by purchasing a ticket to Friday’s game in Pullman between the Cougars (4-0, 1-0) and the Trojans (4-0, 2-0). For a deeper dig on Falk v. Darnold, The Spokesman-Review caught up with Pac-12 Networks college football analyst Yogi Roth. Few have a better grasp on Pac-12 signal-callers than Roth, a former assistant QB coach at USC under Pete Carroll who’s also well-known for his documentary series on the annual Elite 11 quarterbacks camp.
This interview was edited for brevity.
Spokesman-Review: When was the first time you saw Luke Falk and Sam Darnold play? What were your first impressions?
Yogi Roth on Falk: “I want to say it was at Oregon State (in 2014). I remember watching him and saying, ‘Wow, he makes things look really easy.’ And I think that’s a real skill set of a quarterback is to make the job look really easy and he did that. I was like, ‘Wow, this offense, he already looks like he’s kind of got a handle on it.’ And I remember breaking down the film those next couple games and he was doing stuff early in that offense – and I think coach Leach even said it – he was doing stuff earlier than a lot of guys he’s had in the system.”
Yogi Roth on Darnold: “I’ll never forget the first time I saw Sam. Ever. It was in Oakland and his high school coach had called me and told me all about him. He goes, ‘Look, just invite him to the Elite 11. Trust me.’ He was injured. ‘You’re going to love this guy.’ And I was standing next to Trent Dilfer, the head coach of the Elite 11 and I said, ‘Doesn’t he look like Andrew Luck?’ And he’s like, ‘Yeah.’ We started watching him and watching him and we’re like, he’s going to blow up. And then when he went to USC, I remember talking to Sark about how we both thought, he’s going to go to New York twice in his career. Once for the draft and once for the Heisman Trophy.”
S-R: What’s the biggest area of growth you’ve seen from both since you first watched them play?
Roth on both: “Well, the obvious one for both of them is understanding defenses. They both run pure progression systems, which means their job is to go from one, to two, to three and as they continue to grown and learn, how to layer in defenses. And over the top of that, that’s been really impressive. To understand specifically where weakside linebackers in progressions. To me, that type of stuff has been incredibly impressive as you watch them. And they’re still learning it, but that’s the phase. If you’re going to stick around for another year like Luke or you’re going to keep evolving in the position like both of them are, you have to be continually challenged in terms of elements of learning the game. It’s never going to end and you talk to Carson Palmer or you listen to Aaron Rodgers – any of these guys – it’s a continual thing. You’re never just there. And there’s so much for them to continue learning and it’s been really fun to watch them both evolve in that regard to be quite honest with you.”
S-R: When you’re watching Falk and Darnold, what’s maybe one thing you tend to find yourself focusing on, or glued to, more than anything else?
Roth on Falk: “My biggest thing with him is, can he be boring longer than he wants to be? Longer than any quarterback (wants to be). I mean, quarterbacks want to throw touchdown passes, right? But in this offense that he’s running, even coach Leach would say that and he told us before the game last week. He just needs him to continually be boring and just take and take and take what they give you. And that’s really what that system’s all about, more so than the one that Sam’s running.”
Roth on Darnold: “I like evaluating where I think the quarterback’s going and where he’s supposed to go with the football. And Sam’s done that. So much is made right now of Sam’s interceptions, which I get. Totally am aware of why that’s a story, because you can’t do that. And he gets that, too. But I will say this, that I think he’s putting the ball where he needs to put it. When I watch him … I don’t disagree with any of his decisions. Like you get why he made them. So for me, the biggest thing you’ve got to ask a quarterback, if we’re ever going to get one question for a quarterback after every drive, my question would be: What did you see? And I think he’s done a nice job of that, to be quite honest with you, of having answers for why he’s made certain throws.”
S-R: How can they each improve? What needs to happen for both before they move on and play professional football?
Roth on Falk: “I can’t speak to his football acumen that well, but to give you an answer I would say, the biggest thing he’s got to work on or the thing I would like to see him continually evolve is literally just getting the ball out. He does a nice job of it, but there were times – at least I thought in the (Nevada) game last week – where I was like, get it out. You saw it, you saw it first. There was two instances. There was a corner route early in the game, he didn’t throw it and he threw it down the boundary and it was an incompletion. There was another one where he kind of bided some time and got out of the pocket to his right and if just stayed in there and went on rhythm and got rid of it, it’s coming out the front door on a shallow cross route for who knows how many. That’s what I would like to see because it happens so fast. It’s going to happen so much faster this week. It’s obviously going to happen so much faster when you’re in the NFL.”
Roth on Darnold: “I think it’s what Luke has and it’s just game reps. That’s all it is. Sam has the want to, the wherewithal, the football intelligence, the work ethic, obviously the skillset to thrive in the next level. And he will when he goes. He’s just got to not need to go right now. I think he’s got to just keep playing football, he’s just got to keep seeing things. I always this about first-year starters is they’re seeing things for the first time. And that’s just reality. How do you adjust to it? For the first time, Sam’s going to see Pullman, Washington, and the Palouse. I don’t think he’s going to flinch, I think he’s played on bigger stages than Martin Stadium, obviously in the Rose Bowl. But it’s a first experience for him, it’s the first time. So I think there’s something just really interesting to that.”
S-R: You’ve already mentioned a bunch of them, but if you had to pick the biggest strength for each, what would it be?
Roth on Falk: “Luke, he can make spot throws. I don’t believe in arm talent as an evaluator, but I evaluate quarterbacks every week based on the film and one of the categories I have out of the five is unique throws. Can you make spot throws? And he can. He can put it on a front number on a basic cross. He can obviously throw a variety of different throws in the catalog of passes and I think that’s unique for him, is he’s an anticipatory passer and he can make spot throws.”
Roth on Darnold: “Sam, his mechanics are really impressive. I think the limiting factor in reaching your potential is flawed mechanics. It’s kind of a phrase we use at the Elite 11. And you watch him on all those crazy jump throws and all those crazy throws, his base always remains. I think that’s impressive. I guess if I would give him one thing, we call it LTA – “Load to arrival.” Meaning when you put your back foot into the ground, you’re going to load up and ready to rip it, that’s one thing in terms of getting the ball out. And then the other thing is the revolution of the ball. Does it finish on the facemask, how quickly can it get there? I think for me, when he says, when he triggers in his mind, “load.” Josh (Rosen) is the only other guy in this conference who can do that.”
S-R: What’s the most underrated or underappreciated quality each of these guys possess?
Roth on Falk: “For Luke, when he’s been there, I mean he really is a veteran. How often do we see quarterbacks – I’d be curious to know what the stat is – how many times do we get guys that are basically fourth-year starters. Like (Kansas State’s) Colin Kline. I don’t know why he came to mind. Some of those quarterbacks and that aren’t NFL players. You know what I’m saying? He’s a real anomaly in that regard.”
Roth on Darnold: “He’s probably underrated in terms of his competitive demeanor. He’s such a quiet guy, but he’s got the stuff in him that you’re like, ‘Uh oh.’ He’s a dude in that regard. He doesn’t need to say much and he doesn’t, but he’s got a competitive temperament that – you see it in basketball players more than you see it in football players and the fact that he played basketball is a really unique value add. And I don’t think he’s known as a great competitor. I think he’s known as a unique passer and a guy who’s made a ton of special plays. But I’d be curious what word cloud they’d give Sam Darnold. They’d probably give “unique passer,” “SoCal quarterback,” whatever. But I don’t know how many would say, “wildly competitive.”
S-R: OK, tough question. Who is the closest NFL comparison for both of these players?
Roth on Falk: “Well, I mean he stands back in the pocket and deals kind of like Tom Brady. But I can’t compare him to Tom Brady. Like stature wise, style wise, you could kind of make that comp. Performance wise, I don’t know. I’m trying to think about some of the bigger quarterbacks in the NFL that kind of rip the ball around the yard. I’m kind of thinking about Phillip Rivers, maybe. Not the most athletic guy in the history of the world, but can make a bunch of unique passes. Really tough, takes shots, stands in the pocket. I think there’s an element there.”
Roth on Darnold: “Sam’s kind of a blend, right. He’s got the size of Carson (Palmer), but the subtleties in the pocket of Aaron Rodgers. He looks like Andrew (Luck), for sure, and he gets the ball out a lot like Andrew does.”
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