FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — The cool, calm and confident kid from Southern California is going from Hollywood to the Big Apple.
The New York Jets selected USC quarterback Sam Darnold with the No. 3 overall pick in the NFL draft Thursday night — and they didn't have to endure a horrific season to get him, after all.
Since the glory days of Joe Namath nearly 50 years ago, the Jets have been searching for a homegrown QB to deliver a similar type of sustained success as the face of the franchise.
New York is counting on the athletic and strong-armed Darnold to be their man.
Many draft pundits projected several months ago that Darnold would be the No. 1 pick in this year's draft, and still tabbed him as the best overall quarterback of this year's class. But after Cleveland kicked off the draft by taking Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield and the Giants selected Penn State running back Saquon Barkley, the Jets honed in on Darnold, who met with them for a private workout late in the pre-draft process.
It seemed unlikely for the last several months that Darnold would end up with the Jets, especially after their 5-11 season didn't quite play into the "Suck For Sam" campaign pushed by some fans who preferred even more losses in the hopes that a year of misery would translate to a greater chance to land the star quarterback.
After striking out on luring Kirk Cousins in free agency, the Jets positioned themselves to be able to get one of the top available QBs in the draft by moving up three spots and acquiring the third selection from Indianapolis in a trade last month. It cost New York the No. 6 pick, two second-round selections this year and a second-rounder next year — a steep price to pay, but one general manager Mike Maccagnan was comfortable with.
And, in the end, landed the player many fans — and the Jets themselves — have been dreaming of leading their offense.
It was reminiscent of the 2015 draft when defensive end Leonard Williams, who some had ranked as the best overall player, fell to the Jets at No. 6. It happened again last year when safety Jamal Adams dropped to New York at sixth.
Darnold has been lauded for his leadership, poise and quick release, along with his ability to extend plays and get himself and the offense out of trouble. The Capistrano Beach, California, native played just two seasons at USC and went 20-4 as the starter, but showed enough potential to make scouts drool.
The 6-foot-4, 225-pound Darnold redshirted his first year, and then was selected the Pac-12 offensive player of the year. He led USC to a victory over Penn State in the Rose Bowl, setting the game's record with five touchdown passes. Darnold also won the Archie Griffin Award, given to college football's most valuable player for the entire season — and was the first freshman to do so.
He was a Heisman Trophy favorite entering last season, but had a rocky start in which he matched the number of interceptions he threw his first season — nine — in just USC's first six games while working with several new faces in the Trojans' offense. But Darnold bounced back nicely, finishing with 4,143 yards passing with 26 touchdowns and 13 INTs and leading USC to an appearance in the Cotton Bowl — a 24-7 loss to Ohio State in which he struggled at times.
Rather than remain in school for one more year, Darnold opted to make himself eligible for the draft. His biggest detractors point to the issues he has had with ball security — he also had nine lost fumbles — and the need to further improve his mechanics.
But with the Jets, Darnold will get a chance to bring his "it" factor to a franchise and fanbase that will be immediately energized by his selection. He should also be able to adapt well to coordinator Jeremy Bates' West Coast-style offense.
He joins what is suddenly a crowded quarterbacks room with Josh McCown, Teddy Bridgewater, Bryce Petty and Christian Hackenberg also on the roster. But the addition of Darnold could spell the end of the road for both Petty — a fourth-rounder in 2015 — and Hackenberg — a second-rounder in 2016 — in New York.
McCown, the starter last season who'll turn 39 in July, was re-signed last month and is expected to enter training camp running the first-team offense. Bridgewater, signed as a free agent, is still working his way back from a career-threatening knee injury nearly two years ago.
So, Darnold could have a chance to give the veterans a run for the starting gig this summer.
Darnold's selection marks the second time in franchise history that the Jets have picked third overall in the NFL draft. The last time came in 1981, when they took UCLA running back Freeman McNeil.
It's also the fifth time New York has taken a quarterback in the first round of the NFL draft, with Darnold following in the footsteps of Richard Todd (1976), Ken O'Brien (1983), Chad Pennington (2000) and Mark Sanchez (2009) — who also came from USC. All four had some measure of success during their stints with the Jets, but none was able to deliver them to the Super Bowl like Broadway Joe in 1969.
That will ultimately be the way Darnold's career in New York will be measured.