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For Sam Darnold, every day's a chance to learn

Joe Brady, Sam Darnold

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — Sam Darnold's done his work here, at least the on-field kind. That doesn't mean the work doesn't continue.

Even though he'll have a hat on tomorrow, watching the preseason opener against the Colts safely from the sidelines (along with the rest of the Panthers starters), he knows that every day is a chance to get better, and he's intent on taking advantage.

When you're working on a second chance like Darnold's getting with the Panthers, you don't waste any opportunities, so he'll listen to the offensive play calls, the way a backup quarterback would when he's out there.

"I'll be listening to the plays, be locked in mentally every single rep, and go about it that way," he said of his job on Sunday.

For Darnold, everything seems to come back to that notion of studying every snap he can. After wrapping up Friday's practice, he won't take the field again (other than some pregame warm-ups) until Tuesday when they're back in Spartanburg.

"You've just got to continue to get mental reps in the film room and go about it that way," he said. "Just continue to get better as a team mentally. Obviously stay with it physically, get in the weight room and do all the things to keep my body right.

"I think it's about getting right mentally and making sure I'm on my Ps and Qs in terms of my reads and seeing defenses."

Darnold's practices against the Colts were a decent summation of his time with the Panthers so far. During Thursday's practice, things looked rather loose, and head coach Matt Rhule said a bad day by the receivers made it look worse than it was. They're trying to keep everything from being about Darnold, making it easier for him to meet expectations.

"I thought Sam was the least of our problems," Rhule said Thursday. "The main thing with Sam, don't turn it over, protect the ball, and I thought we did that. Just a play or two away from a couple of deep balls. So we've just got to connect on those."

Friday was better. There was an interception, but also a number of good throws. Darnold's work has been mostly solid. Fine. Not always great. But never disastrous. OK, not outstanding, and he keeps coming back to the things he has to improve.

"For me personally, I just have to be quicker with my eyes, make better decisions," he said. "I think that's just it. Being clearer with my reads, and if something's not there, check it down. That's me personally.

"Just too many mental errors (Thursday), and I think we learned from that today."

Sam Darnold

That's not to say it's all bad. Darnold recalled a particularly sharp sequence, when he hit DJ Moore with a back-shoulder throw to keep the chains moving during a two-minute drill (which ended with a successful field goal). And he's figuring out that checking it down is another way of saying "put the ball in Christian McCaffrey's hands" and it's hard to construe that as a negative.

Being presented with a different set of defensive players (and coverages) this week was good for him, keeping things from becoming routine.

"I think just being able to diagnose different coverages," he said of the benefit of joint practices. "When you're playing against your defense for as long we have been, you kind of get used to the same coverages. To be able to go against a different defense and play and see different coverages was good for us."

Rhule likes to talk about introducing "chaos," and seeing how players react to new environments, changing schedules, or different looks in practice. He wants them to be able to learn on their feet, and every time Darnold talks, there's a reference to "studying the tape and getting better."

He's made progress in that regard, playing more consistently than he did in the spring — when they threw the kitchen sink at him to see how he'd process a flood of information. Now he's a little more settled in the system, and feeling more secure.

"Yeah, I'm confident in my ability to run it," he said. "I just have to keep getting reps, and just learn from the mistakes I make in practice, and continue to learn that way."

It sounds so simple when he says it like that, but for Darnold, this chance to reset his career has been reduced to uncomplicated goals, and he approaches them with a casual attitude.

As he wandered up to a knot of reporters waiting to diagnose the latest chapter in his development, he greeted them with an easy "How we living?"

For Darnold, the answer at this point in training camp is pretty good.

View photos from Friday's joint practice with the Colts at Grand Park Sports Campus in Westfield, Ind.

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