FLORHAM PARK, N.J. – The big day finally arrived, and Sam Darnold had the perfect plan for celebrating his 21st birthday.
“Playing football,” the New York Jets rookie quarterback said with a huge grin.
The birthday boy is now officially of the legal drinking age, but Darnold wasn’t expecting to toast the milestone Tuesday night.
“Probably not,” he said, smiling. “I’ll probably just stay in and go to sleep early, like I have been every single night.”
Partying is not high on the list for Darnold, who’s the youngest player on the Jets’ roster – and the fresh-faced future of the franchise.
The No. 3 overall draft pick out of USC has taken a businesslike approach to his introduction to life in the NFL. Eat, sleep and dream football.
Those are Darnold’s days. Every day.
“I’m making a ton of strides, but at the same time, I’m not exactly where I want to be,” Darnold said. “But I know it’s going to take time and it’s a process. I’m aware of that and it’s exciting, though, to understand the playbook the way I am and the strides I’m making. I’m really excited about where I’m going right now.”
Darnold will compete with veterans Josh McCown and Teddy Bridgewater this summer for the starting job, and he’s giving Todd Bowles and his coaching staff plenty to consider early in this offseason.
The youngster looked predictably shaky in his first practice of organized team activities two weeks ago, but has appeared increasingly more poised in the sessions open to the media since.
“He’s just more comfortable with the playbook and obviously seeing things a couple of times will make you more comfortable,” Bowles said. “He’s just hard-working. Everything we thought coming in. He’s going to work every day, wants to be good, understands the mistakes he makes, works at them night and day, and watches film and asks questions.
“At this time of year, that’s what you’re supposed to be doing.”
During Tuesday’s practice, Darnold tossed a badly underthrown pass that safety Jamal Adams, last year’s first-rounder, easily intercepted.
For a guy who was celebrating his birthday, it was certainly a gift – but for the defense.
“Yeah, I just made a bad read on it,” Darnold said. “I should’ve just dumped it down to the back, but I tried to force one in there.”
“He retains things when you tell him,” Bowles said. “He makes mistakes, but doesn’t make the same one twice, so he’s very good from that standpoint as far as retaining information.”
Late in practice, though, Darnold had perhaps his prettiest play as a pro. He zipped a deep pass down the sideline that dropped over the reach of safety Kacy Rodgers II and right into Chad Hansen’s hands. It was a terrific throw and a reminder of why so many labeled Darnold as “special” in the months leading up to the draft.
But such is the up-and-down life of a rookie quarterback that Darnold overthrew his final pass of practice on a deep toss to a wide-open Jordan Leggett. There’s no doubt Darnold would be spending part of his birthday night breaking that down in the film room.
Darnold’s development has included lots of rewinding and fast-forwarding through plays, and dissecting every move. He’s got that type of time now, because football is the only thing that matters these days.
“I don’t have class, so I’m spending every single day in the film room or on the practice field,” he said. “So in regards to that, just being able to spend time watching football and playing football is awesome. To be able to come in here every single day and do it for a living, that’s pretty sweet.”
Darnold also recognizes the value of working with McCown and Bridgewater on and off the field.
“What makes it really cool is that they’re really good players,” Darnold said. “They’ve experienced ball and they understand what’s going on on the field all the time, at all times. It’s amazing to be able to learn from them. After that play with Jamal, to be able to talk about it with them is something that is really cool, to be able to do that right after the play and get that feedback.”
Darnold has had to make several adjustments since coming to the Jets, including calling plays in the huddle – something he hadn’t done much of at USC. He also says the increased pace of the game is evident, even in practice.
“It’s faster, which is what I thought it would be, so it’s been awesome,” he said. “It’s just been a learning experience, just learning every single day and getting used to it has been awesome.”
Darnold says “awesome” a lot and sounds like a kid who’s happy to be doing what he loves.
“You know, no, I don’t feel any different,” a smiling Darnold said of his milestone birthday. “It’s cool to be 21, but at the same time, I’m just coming here every single day ready for practice. Nothing’s changing for me.”
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