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The college football season doesn’t start until the fall but it’s never too early to start looking ahead.
USA TODAY Sports

LOS ANGELES — Sam Darnold’s exit interview with USC coaches took place shortly after the Trojans’ January 1 Rose Bowl win, in a room with head coach Clay Helton, quarterbacks coach Tyson Helton and strength coach Ivan Lewis.

It wasn’t long: 20 minutes, give or take. And it didn’t detail any major changes for the rising sophomore, who took college football by storm in leading USC on a nine-game winning streak after a middling start to the 2016 season.

“He’s not a finished product,” Clay Helton said. “But he is special. He is special. And whatever it is, he has it. There’s no question.”

After a stunning debut as a redshirt freshman, Darnold and his coaches have identified a few areas where he can advance his game before the Trojans kick off their College Football Playoff push in September. At the same time, however, his coaches are cautious as they walk a fine line.

There’s room for improvement in his mechanics. Darnold has worked with both Tyson Helton and a private coach, Jordan Palmer, on his footwork and delivery. The coaches speak to Darnold about staying “on platform,” getting his feet and shoulders square before throwing the football.

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Yet the Trojans’ coaching staff doesn’t want to rob Darnold of perhaps the defining characteristic of his game: creativity and inventiveness within the framework of the offense.

“They don’t want me to not be that creative type of player,” he said. “They want me to play the game.”

So the Trojans will continue to expand the playbook to match Darnold’s skill set. The system has broadened to include more run-pass options, plays that give Darnold the choice between two directions based on the formation and tendencies of the defense. By the second half of last season, Helton had given Darnold the ability to dictate his offensive line’s protection packages. This spring, USC began to allow Darnold the option of calling an audible based on the defense.

It’s a delicate balancing act. How do you improve as a traditional passer without sacrificing what makes Darnold unique? In the annals of USC history, littered as it is with quarterbacking stars, there has been no one quite like the sophomore; he’s the program’s first true dual-threat player to take the reins under center.

“He’s so creative, I get so nervous sometimes even worrying about mechanics,” Helton said. “His core is so strong and he can make every throw on the field. His anticipation, his timing and then the use of his core — he’s not a guy that has to wind up, the ball comes out so quick. He doesn’t even have to take a step. He’s unbelievable at it.”