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Jeff Sentell/DawgNation
Georgia junior cornerback D.J. Daniel was a rare junior college signee during the Kirby Smart era at UGA.

Georgia junior cornerback D.J. Daniel took a longer road to play for his home state

EDITOR’s NOTE: This original D.J. Daniel profile continues a special series in partnership with Georgia Farm Bureau profiling homegrown talent from the state of Georgia.  To access other HomeGrown Talent articles please visit the series hub on DawgNation.com. 

D.J. Daniel has a longer homegrown story than most when it comes to playing for Georgia.

The 4-star CB grew up in Griffin and played for Nick Davis at Spalding High School. He told DawgNation that UGA would have been his choice coming out of high school.

But he wasn’t academically eligible to sign with the Bulldogs after his senior year. It meant he had to take the junior college route to SEC football. Daniel did so at Georgia Military College.

It means he has two Georgia towns to look back on that helped him to where he is today.

Daniel rated as the nation’s No. 2 junior college cornerback prospect in the 2020 cycle. That status also slotted him as No. 6 overall junior college recruit in the country last year.

When it came time for his decision last August, he surprised many when he chose South Carolina.

It did not last. He flipped his choice from South Carolina to Georgia in November. Nick Davis, his former high school coach at Spalding, gave DawgNation a pretty good breakdown of why that happened.

“D.J. grew up as a Georgia fan, and stated on numerous occasions that that’s where he wanted to go to college,” Davis said this summer. “I think when D.J. went to GMC, (South Carolina coach Will Muschamp) and his staff did a good job of recruiting him, and they had other players (at GMC) commit to South Carolina. Those relationships, and the fact that South Carolina was his first offer, I think D.J. kind of fell in love with that.”

“But at the end of the day, when he visited Georgia again, he remembered that he had envisioned being in that uniform for his whole life. That’s hard to deny, especially if the opportunity is there. I know that’s where his family really wanted him to go. He battled with that decision, and ultimately he followed his heart.”

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D.J. Daniel was hand-timed at 4.40 and 4.42 seconds last July on a slow turf field at Georgia Military College in Milledgeville. (Jeff Sentell/DawgNation)

Good start so far for D.J. Daniel at UGA

Daniel is a physical corner with good speed and athleticism. He is strong in press coverage because he has the length and skills to do so. He’ll just need to learn how to play off-the-ball and in a zone concept.

When he puts his foot down and takes off, he can go. No coach anywhere can teach that. He was hand-time at 4.40 and 4.42 seconds in the 40 at Georgia Military last summer.

The 6-foot, 185-pound junior quickly showed what he could do at the JUCO level. He basically had to.

Daniel was thrust into action in his first JUCO contest as a true freshman. By that point, he had already flashed enough ability to rotate in as the team’s third-best corner heading into his freshman season.

Then his Game 1 baptism happened.  GMC saw both of its starting cornerbacks go down in the season opener with dislocated elbows. Daniel received a true in-game promotion to the first team.

“We lost both of them by the midpoint of the first quarter of the first game,” GMC coach Bert Williams said. “So (D.J.) had to start from then on after being in the second rotation to begin the year. We were down to three corners and thin there for a long time. D.J. just had to step in and really compete his butt off. He did.”

He quickly earned major offers once South Carolina’s defensive coordinator Travaris Robinson saw him move in the spring after that first season. He also had some very good film. The way the Griffin native covered ground cinched it.

Daniel has the benefit of signing early with UGA in December. It allowed him to participate in bowl practices. Georgia coach Kirby Smart said that provided a benefit.

The young man went from covering JUCO receivers to the three guys the Bulldogs saw drafted by the NFL this year.

“What’s good about the corner position is we’ve got some guys coming along,” Smart said. “D.J. Daniel, which we knew in bowl practice that he was going to be a good player because he was covering the likes of the ones who were at the combine. So we knew we had a pretty good player with D.J.”

The former GMC Bulldog is now expected to contend for major reps this fall.

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D.J. Daniel broke up a last-gasp pass on the final play of the Red team’s 22-17 win at G-Day back in April. (Curtis Compton/ AJC)

D.J. Daniel already has a big play inside Sanford Stadium 

Daniel broke up a pass on the final play for his Red team at G-Day back in April. That secured the victory for his side of the split-squad scrimmage.

It served notice that his name could also be on that list of expected impact newcomers this fall.

“If you know D.J., he definitely feels like he belongs,” Davis told DawgNation this summer. “He will be highly-disappointed if he doesn’t come out of camp as one of the top two guys. That’s what he has his heart set on. I know he’s going to accomplish that, barring any injuries. That’s just his confidence and competitive nature, not arrogance.”

The Bulldogs have not signed too many junior college players in the Kirby Smart era. He is a rare exception along with 4-star OLB Jermaine Johnson and DT Tramel Walthour in the 2019 class. As it turns out, new defensive coordinator Dan Lanning was a central figure in the recruitment of both of those Bulldogs out of the JUCO ranks.

Williams said Georgia told him it did not plan to take a JUCO cornerback in the last cycle. Maybe not until they saw Daniel put his foot in the ground and go, too.

“From my understanding, they really weren’t looking for a junior college corner because of what they already have on the field,” Williams said last summer. “But they were so impressed with what he can do after they saw him they pulled the trigger on him.”

Deandre Baker was set to run out of eligibility last season. He did so after taking home the program’s first Jim Thorpe Award. The Bulldogs would like to see Daniel shadow receivers pretty close to the way he did.

The learning curve won’t be so steep given their age and playing experience beyond varsity football.

“They tell me that because they are looking at a JUCO corner then they want me to play now,” Daniel said last summer. “If they were to sign a freshman, they know they can have him for three or four years and give him time to develop. When they recruit a JUCO guy like me, then they expect me to be able to play right away.”

Georgia made it clear they wanted him to come in and earn key SEC reps quickly.

“They tell me I’m not just a want for them,” he continued on. “They say ‘I am a need’ and the coaches at Georgia have told me they would not recruit a junior college corner if he could not play right away. I hear them say that and I feel it, too.”

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D.J. Daniel got some extra reps back in December after he was able to join the team as a JUCO graduate for bowl practices leading up to the Sugar Bowl in January. (Jeff Sentell/DawgNation)

Why D.J. Daniel is driven to excel at UGA

Daniel wants to take care of his mother. That’s a common thread among college players. But his junior college path has ensured he will do whatever it takes to make it to Sundays.

That was evident through two days in his life coming up. The first was when he sat down with Davis and it became clear he wasn’t going to go to college right out of high school.

His mother Amanda Mangham was there that day.

“We sat down and had a talk with Coach Davis,” Daniel said last year. “He was just telling my mom we had to go the JUCO route. He said we still have a chance, but that was what we had to do. That was the day where I can say that we were all the most down. My mom was crying. She was disappointed in me. I knew I was better than that.”

“I told myself that my hunger for the game had to go up even more. All that I ever want is for my mother to smile. She doesn’t care what I do as long as I am successful at what I do. She just wants me to give it my all and to the best of my ability. I wasn’t doing that in the classroom and earning my chance to play college football.”

Fast forward two years later. Mangham was also there when the head coach of the defending SEC Champions extended the offer he used to dream about.

“What do I think was my happiest day over the last two years?” Daniel said last spring. “I think that was just getting the Georgia offer. That was when I saw my mom when it looked like she was the happiest. Don’t get me wrong. She was really happy after all of my offers, but I think that me getting that Georgia offer really made her proud. It really made her proud.”

He said he hadn’t seen his mother that happy for him since the day he graduated from Spalding in 2017.

Daniel earned that offer after an on-campus workout in Athens. He felt he might have had an offer prior to his unofficial visit last June. But then he got an “official” offer from Smart.

“I met him before the camp that day started and he said that he had watched my film,” Daniel said back in June of 2018. “He said he loved what I do. My long arms. Press coverage. I saw him after the camp and he told me that I had ‘an offer here at Georgia’ and when he told me that, it really took my breath away. It did. Man, I’m just going to stay humble through this process. .. But [that one] took my breath.”

Daniel now has the chance to take DawgNation’s breath away playing for the home state school. If he does, that will make it even sweeter doing it for the school he dreamed about growing up.