Inside Slant

The Sports Xchange

September 05, 2018 at 1:08 am.

Jets reins turned over to rookie QB Darnold

The last football game Sam Darnold played in that counted did not go well.

He turned the ball over three times, including an interception returned for a touchdown, in USC’s 24-7 loss to Ohio State in the Cotton Bowl. After the game, Darnold, a redshirt sophomore looking bewildered by what just transpired, said there was “a lot of stuff where we just shot ourselves in our foot.” When ESPN sent it over to SportsCenter following the game, college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit advocated for Darnold spending another year in school, saying he could use the time to mature.

If a child was conceived that night, the baby wouldn’t be due until September 29, the eve of Darnold’s fourth professional start with the Jets. It’s been quite the abbreviated maturation process.

Head coach Todd Bowles officially announced Darnold as the New York Jets’ Week 1 starter on Monday, one week before they’ll play in Detroit in the early game of the now annual Monday night doubleheader to open the season. Of the five quarterbacks selected in the first round of this year’s draft, Darnold (the No. 3 pick) will be the only one to start his team’s first game. He’ll also be the youngest opening-day starting quarterback in NFL history (21 years, 97 days).

To say the kid is excited to take over an NFL team would be a vast understatement. Though his demeanor is California cool, you can tell he’s geeked about the opportunity.

“I’ve had a ton of fun,” Darnold said after Bowles’ announcement. “I keep saying it, but getting paid to play a sport that I love and not having to go to class is pretty cool, too. It’s fun to be able to play this sport for a living and play with some really cool dudes.”

After the Jets’ preseason finale last week in Philadelphia, Darnold said, “If I am going to be the starter Week 1, I feel really comfortable. … The whole training camp, I think I learned a lot in a short period of time.”

And you could tell he did. He only turned the ball over once in the preseason, he and veteran journeyman Josh McCown were in such lock step that a video of them slicking their hair back at the same time went viral, and Bowles, general manager Mike Maccagnan and Jets legend Joe Namath all sung Darnold’s praises the last month and a half. Excitement is high in Jets land, and deservedly so.

Still, don’t expect miracles. Darnold only turned 21 in June, he averaged an atrocious 5.4 yards per passing attempt in the preseason, and the Jets play their first three games in an 11-day stretch, with two on the road followed by a trip to Jacksonville to play the 2017 AFC finalists. It’s not going to be easy.

The Jets haven’t made the playoffs the last seven seasons, and you shouldn’t expect them to this year, either. If everything — and I mean everything — breaks right, they can stay in contention for a wild-card spot into December, but that’s best-case scenario. If you want to plunk money down on them to win the Super Bowl at 150/1 odds (as you now legally can only steps from MetLife Stadium at Meadowlands Racetrack), be my guest. But the smart money says not to.

Still, this should be an improved team after two straight 5-11 seasons.

The defense didn’t allow an offensive touchdown in the preseason until there were only 18 seconds left in it.

The secondary, consisting of prized free-agent acquisition Trumaine Johnson, Morris Claiborne, Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye, which is calling itself “New Jack City,” has the potential to be one of the best in football. Defensive lineman Leonard Williams, arguably the best player on the roster, looked fit in training camp and looks primed for a big year (though he’s basically the only hope for a pass rush).

The run defense should be solid with the inside linebacker duo of Avery Williamson (free agent from the Titans who looked great all preseason) and Darron Lee (who greatly improved in his second season and could be ready to make another jump).

Offensively, there’s no Round 1 fantasy talent, but there’s decent depth at the skill positions. Wide receiver Robby Anderson is the most explosive player, but Jermaine Kearse (who could miss the opener with an abdominal issue), Terrelle Pryor and Quincy Enunwa are all proven veterans. Same goes for running backs Isaiah Crowell and Bilal Powell. The offensive line is a work in progress, and is probably the weakest unit on the team.

The 2018 Jets aren’t going to unseat the Patriots as AFC East champs, but the future does look bright, which is at least something win-starved Gang Green fans can cling to this season.

SERIES HISTORY: 14th regular-season meeting. Lions lead series, 7-6. The Jets have won their last two road games against Detroit, including a 23-20 overtime win in 2010, when Mark Sanchez led them back from a 20-10 fourth-quarter deficit in the last 2:46. But the Jets’ last regular-season game at Ford Field was actually 2014, when they played the Bills there due to a massive snowstorm in Buffalo.