USC redshirt sophomore quarterback Sam Darnold quickly has become one of the faces of college football.

Sports Illustrated and ESPN The Magazine cover boy, SportsCenter studio appearances, Heisman Trophy candidate, projected top pick in next year’s NFL Draft.

He also will be a main focus of the Utah defense in Saturday’s clash of Pac-12 Conference South Division contenders.

The mobile 6-foot-4, 220-pound Darnold is the first in a gauntlet of potential NFL draft pick quarterbacks the Utes will face in Pac-12 play. That includes UCLA’s Josh Rosen, Washington State’s Luke Falk and Washington’s Jake Browning. ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. rates Darnold the top prospect eligible for this spring’s NFL Draft.

Darnold is also special in that he has multiple connections to the Utah program. Utah’s staff was the first to offer him a college scholarship, he’s developed a close relationship with Travis Wilson, who holds Utah’s all-time records for starts and games played by a quarterback, and Darnold’s run to national prominence began with game against Utah in Rice-Eccles Stadium.

“It was definitely something I’ll never forget,” Darnold said in a phone interview with The Tribune. “Being able to go into such a hostile atmosphere for my first game – because the Salt Lake fans in Utah, they love their Utes – it was awesome to kind of see what Travis meant by such great fans and such loving and loyal fans. To actually go there and experience what he meant by that was really cool for me.”

Darnold and Wilson are former star quarterbacks from San Clemente High School in southern California. They were several years apart, but Wilson and Darnold’s older sister were friends in high school. Their mothers, both physical education teachers at middle schools in San Clemente, also have been close for years.

Darnold’s redshirt season at USC and Wilson’s senior year at Utah overlapped. Wilson, now a tight end on the Los Angeles Rams’ practice squad, still makes it a point to get together occasionally for dinner. While they didn’t know each other very well when either was in high school, Darnold said they “have a really good relationship now.”

Utah quarterback Travis Wilson passes against Washington during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Nov. 7, 2015, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Utah quarterback Travis Wilson passes against Washington during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Nov. 7, 2015, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Darnold went 18 of 26 passing for 253 yards in his debut as a starter in Salt Lake City. He didn’t throw a touchdown or an interception, and the Utes defense sacked him just once. However, Utes quarterback Troy Williams stole the show with one rushing touchdown, 270 yards passing and two touchdown passes, including the game-winner to Tim Patrick with 16 seconds remaining.

“To walk into that type of atmosphere and that type of environment and function like he did, the sad part is we lost the ballgame in the last 16 seconds,” USC coach Clay Helton said. “But what it really turned out to be walking away from that game, as sad as I was for our kids, I was really happy inside as a coach because I knew we had found our quarterback and that going forward he would lead us extremely well.”

USC won its final nine games last season. Darnold completed 246 of 366 passes (67.2 percent) for 3,086 yards and 31 touchdowns and nine interceptions in 13 games (10 starts). He finished the season ranked ninth in the nation in passer efficiency, and he also rushed for 250 yards while averaging 4 yards per carry.

“After that loss [at Utah], we came together and decided to have a players-only meeting,” Darnold said. “We talked about how we need to trust each other a little bit more and get on the same page more and how much harder we need to work in practice. I think ever since that reality hit us after that loss, we kept rolling and we got hot. It was a great feeling to just rattle off so many wins.”

Darnold capped his captivating freshman season by rallying USC from a 14-point fourth-quarter deficit to beat Penn State in the Rose Bowl. He set a Rose Bowl record with 473 yards of total offense, including 453 passing (33 of 53).

Two weeks ago, Washington State handed USC (5-1, 3-1) its first loss with Darnold as its starting quarterback since his first start against Utah. Darnold has 12 touchdown passes through six games this season, but he also already has as many interceptions as last season (nine).

Regardless of statistics, the Utes know what kind of threat Darnold presents.

“He is absolutely one of the best quarterbacks in the country, and in my opinion should still be a Heisman candidate,” Utes coach Kyle Whittingham said. “I don’t know how they determine who the candidates are and who aren’t, but what I see on film, what we see on film is an outstanding athlete, a great quarterback. I know they had a setback against Washington State, but he’s the whole package.”