ATHENS — JT Daniels proved he was everything he was hyped up to be on Saturday night, and it was just in time to save Georgia from what would have been an embarrassing loss.
Daniels was 28-of-38 passing for 401 yards and 4 touchdowns with no interceptions on a night UGA could not run the ball and struggled to stop Mike Leach’s offense in the 31-24 win over Mississippi State.
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No one could have imagined Daniels would post Georgia’s first 400-yard passing performance since SEC all-time passing leader Aaron Murray in 2013.
No one except Daniels, that is.
“Absolutely,” Daniels said, asked if he could have imagined such a debut. “It’s something you visualize and dream about, putting up good numbers.”
Daniels, for the UGA fans who have not been paying close attention to the build up, is a quarterback who checks all the boxes.
Talent leads a list for the 2017 Gatorade High School Player of the Year that includes confidence, arm strength, poise, football IQ and mental toughness.
Oh, and patience — a lot of patience.
Daniels was more interested in talking about the talent that surrounds him, and his intent to continue to keep delivering downfield strikes.
Freshman receiver Jermaine Burton went for a season-high 197 yards and 2 touchdowns on 8 receptions.
Sophomore George Pickens, despite often having extra attention, had 8 catches for 87 yards and his first touchdown since the second game of the season.
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“If you have George Pickens and Jermaine Burton, if you’re not going to throw it up to them, don’t recruit them,” Daniels said of the elite talent.
“George made me look good, Jermaine made me look good, Kearis (Jackson) made me look really good when I under-threw a deep ball down the middle, and he makes a great play.
“If you are giving one-on-one (coverage) with George, Kearis and Jermaine, and all our guys, I’m probably going to try to make you show me you can stop it.”
That’s not just the mindset, that’s the Kirby Smart game plan: Take what the defense is giving.
Daniels, with his arm talent, has the ability to do just that, to truly apply the “make every throw” cliche.
But he can also change plays at the line of scrimmage, and in game one, he had no problem assuming that responsibility.
“We love putting up good numbers, and if the situation presents itself I’ll throw George the ball, I’ll throw Kearis the ball, D-Rob, all of them, I’ll throw them the ball every time,” Daniels said.
“But if you get a team playing soft (coverage), I have no problem giving Zamir (White) and (James) Cook the ball, and Kenny (McIntosh) and Kendall (Milton), and all those guys, the ball every single play.”
It was up to Mississippi State to pick its poison, Daniels explained.
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“On film we’ve been such a great run team, and I think we had to prove ourselves in the pass game a little bit,” Daniels said. “They played a little more Cover Zero with no safeties, they played a little more man. I think it was their emphasis to try to stop Zeus and Cook from taking it up on them.
“No, I did not think we would have to come out and be throwing the ball that much, but that’s football. You play the game, see what their game plan is and what they are trying to stop, and then you counter it.”
That’s it, football’s universal truth, from West Coast to The South — which, by the way, Daniels revealed he absolutely loves when asked why he chose to transfer to Georgia.
“I think Coach Smart is all about winning no matter what, it’s something I really respect,” Daniels said. “I think he does so much, himself, for the team. He’s completely selfless, he is here to help us win games and achieve our goals, so that’s one thing.
“Two, I absolutely love the state of Georgia. I had been in the South one time for the Manning Passing Academy, and I fell in love with it when I was down in Louisiana.
“Then Coach Monken’s offense, just talking to him through Zoom when I was in the transfer portal, I knew he was a guy I’d love to play for.”
Daniels’ passion and zest for the game was clear as he fearlessly attacked the Maroon Bulldogs’ defense with one deep throw after another.
It went down exactly the way Daniels told Smart it would when he went to his office the day after the Florida game to make his case to play.
“He was very adamant that he was confident in his knee, that he was ready to go, that he could make the throws and do the decision-making and do all the things that weren’t getting done in terms of accuracy,” Smart said. “He has extreme confidence in himself, which is what you want at that position.”
Daniels, it would seem, checks all the boxes.
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