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For Sam Darnold, it's time to focus on the next small thing

Sam Darnold

SPARTANBURG — Sam Darnold has a full house of furniture; he's through the new-guy phase. And he's at least a few weeks away from the flame-thrower of attention that comes with opening the regular season for a new team against his old one.

For Darnold, what's happening for the next few weeks is the blessed in-between, the chance to bury himself in the work, to get better at playing quarterback, and to make himself the new Panthers quarterback.

"Going into this training camp, the whole idea is to get better every single day," Darnold said Tuesday as he reported to Wofford College. "And that's where my mind's at every single day. I've always been confident, I've always had confidence in my game, and that's never going to change. I'm going to continue to learn the offense every single day and continue to grow."

That sounds like a rote answer, and Darnold has it down. His old coach at Southern Cal, Clay Helton, said he could always trust Darnold to do interviews on his own, because he never got off-script.

Darnold gave multiple versions of the answer on Tuesday, all coming back to the same conclusion. This camp is where the work happens; this is where the stuff he needs to get better at will be. Not that there aren't expectations here, but he's not in New York anymore as a first-round pick who was supposed to save a franchise. Here, he's working to fit in, and that is its own kind of pressure.

"I mean, it is what you make of it," Darnold said. "Anyone outside looking in can say, 'Oh, there's pressure on him he's got to win,' and that's true. But at the end of the day, it's just me going out there and doing everything I can do to get better. And at the end of the day making smart decisions on the field and leading my team down the field and scoring touchdowns is my job."

To this point, he appears to have done it sufficiently well. The Panthers threw everything they could at their new starter this offseason, showing him everything in OTAs and minicamp they could, to see what he could handle. And through that, running back Christian McCaffrey said he likes the way Darnold has processed all the new information and taken on his new role.

"He's a great leader," McCaffrey said. "I think he knows exactly who he is. That's big. I think he knows how to get the best out of everyone around him. I think his poise, too, is something that's important at the quarterback position. He doesn't get too high or too low, and that's something we feed off of.

"I think he's really good at talking through things with guys, whether it's receivers or running backs or protection, and what their ability is and what their capabilities are, and adjusting his game. If he needs me to run a route a certain depth he'll let me know, and nothing goes unsaid."

That level of detail has extended through the last six weeks, when Darnold worked with other quarterbacks in California on the mechanical details, and keeping himself sharp. "June and July are really the months to ramp things up training-wise," he said.

The months that preceded them were important as well — and evidence of the things you do rather than a thing you say.

"I thought Sam did a really nice job throughout the spring," Panthers general manager Scott Fitterer said. "You walk into the office at 7 a.m. and he's in there lifting weights. He's in there watching tape. Even on the players' day off I see him; he's walking out of the shower. I think just through his actions, he's shown a lot of leadership."

And now is the time for him to continue to act.

Darnold has a self-awareness about him, a recognition that when the Jets game gets closer, he's not going to be able to avoid the comparisons to where he started his career and where he is now, or the guy he was then and the guy he is now. He thinks he's better able to process information than when he was a rookie who couldn't fix things in a place where few others have either. He also admits visualizing that game, but not in a way that suggests he's looking for vengeance.

"When you put the pads on, it starts to get real, and you visualize that first week and winning the first game," he said. "The fact it's the Jets, that's just a coincidence, but that's never changed for me. It's the next opponent for us. That's my mindset."

Asked if the league office just stumbled into that coincidence when scheduling games, or did it just for him, he laughed.

"I'm sure they did," Darnold said. "At the end of the day, it's reality TV. But I'm excited to get out there and play football."

And for now, football is what it gets to be all about. He seems perfectly content with that.

View photos from Wofford College as the Panthers move in to the dorms before the start of 2021 training camp.

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