Sam Darnold knows the speed of an NFL game is much faster than it appeared from the upper-level seats that he and his Southern California teammates had for a Dallas Cowboys game after arriving in North Texas for the Cotton Bowl.
What is still unclear is how quickly the All-Pac-12 Trojans quarterback could be playing at field level in the pros.
Darnold, a third-year sophomore, hasn't said yet if he will return to Pac-12 champion USC for another season or if the Cotton Bowl against fifth-ranked Ohio State will be his Trojans finale. He has to decide by Jan. 15 whether to make himself eligible for the next NFL draft, which will be held in late April in the same stadium where he will play Friday night.
"Obviously, I haven't been thinking about it a ton. I've been really focused on Ohio State. So I think after the bowl game, honestly, I'll be able to give a better answer," Darnold said Wednesday during his media session at the Cotton Bowl. "But I think just looking at all the factors, I can't really pinpoint anything specifically."
In two seasons with the Trojans, though he didn't become the starter until the fourth game in 2016 on way to a Rose Bowl title, Darnold has thrown for 6,873 yards with 57 touchdowns and 21 interceptions while completing 65 percent of his passes. Often considered just a prototypical drop-back passer, he has also run for 350 yards and seven scores.
The kid who has always dreamed of playing in the NFL is expected to be a top pick if he leaves USC early. Darnold said his decision on whether to go or stay won't be impacted by which NFL team might chose him.
"It's been such a dream of mine to play in the NFL that whether I go or whether I stay at USC, to be able to have the opportunity to even play in the NFL and achieve that dream of mine is something that I've always looked at," Darnold said. "And for an organization to put their trust in me to be able to go out there and play football for them, I think any opportunity to play for anyone would be amazing and something that I've always dreamed of."
While Darnold expects it to be a hard decision, he believes he will be able to say he made the right decision — no matter what that is.
USC offensive coordinator Tee Martin describes Darnold as a "quarterback's quarterback" who will be ready for the NFL whenever he decides to go.
"Ultimately at the end of the day, he wants to win. He's an extreme competitor," Martin said. "I think he does like being in college. It might be one of those heartstring things, where, 'Hey we made it to the Cotton Bowl, we did great. But can we do better? Can I play better?' If that's the case, then you'll see him coming back.
"If he feels it's the right situation, or the right timing for the right organization on the next level, he may make the decision to leave," he said.
Before that Cowboys game on Sunday, when they were eliminated from playoff contention in a loss to Seattle, Darnold hadn't attended an NFL game since going to see the Chargers as a young kid.
It was only three years ago that USC coach Clay Helton was in Darnold's living room recruiting him to the Trojans.
"Life is kind of moving really fast right now," Darnold said. "I've made some big decisions, and coming to USC was one of them. And it was a really great decision. So I think whatever decision I make by Jan. 15 is going to be a great decision, too."