ATHENS — The headlines are catching up with JT Daniels once again, more than 2,200 miles away from where his quarterback journey began as a can’t-miss local kid set to take his place in USC lore.
The player once thought to be the Trojans’ answer for a championship — Mater Dei High School’s national championship quarterback, the 2017 Gatorade National Player of the Year, will soon take the field at Georgia amid questions.
The No. 12-ranked Bulldogs (4-2) from Athens play host to Mississippi State (2-4) at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday looking to shake off one of the worst passing performances in modern era history.
Three straight SEC Championship Game appearances have raised the stakes to a national championship-or-bust mentality among many of the faithful fans who have waited 40 years to hoist the big trophy again.
Georgia was thought to have a championship defense this season, 8 of 11 starters back from a unit that led the country in scoring defense and rushing defense last season.
All that was needed was a quarterback who could throw to the open receivers that Todd Monken’s new offensive scheme would draw up.
It didn’t seem like much to ask, until it was, as the season came crashing down amid historically bad play at the position with the season on the line in Jacksonville.
All Daniels could do was watch, and by the end of the 44-28 loss in Florida, all the Georgia fans could do was ask “Why?”
Kirby Smart’s praise for Daniels throughout the season has done nothing to explain his puzzling absence.
“He’s got good command and presence—meaning he understands the offense in terms of timing, communication, snap count, motions, all of the things you want a quarterback to be able to do,” Smart said.
“He digs deep into the game. The game is really important to him, he’s got a quick release and great arm-talent.”
Daniels comes from a quarterback tradition at Mater Dei that has included Matt Leinart, Colt Brennan, Matt Barkley and current Alabama backup Bryce Young.
“I know he’s chomping at the bit,” Mater Dei coach Bruce Rollinson, now in his 32nd year leading the powerhouse program, told DawgNation. “When JT gets his opportunity he’s going to shine. He won’t be flashy, not a lot of running around, but he will get the ball out, it will be well-placed in small windows, and he will keep his cool.
“The moment is never too big for him.”
Rollinson witnessed that first hand. From the time Daniels took over as the Monarchs’ starting quarterback as a freshman though his junior season, when he capped a high school career with a 15-0 record and high school national championship.
Daniels had amassed 12,014 yards passing with 152 touchdowns and 14 interceptions before bypassing his senior year of high school to jump into the collegiate ranks.
“Was he ready?” Mater Dei offensive coordinator Dave Money asks rhetorically. “JT, as a sixth grader, understood all of our pass protections and how they worked versus different looks. He knew how to adjust it, and how to enhance it, and he could draw up our formations and defenses better than the high school kids we had.”
Rollinson remembers his introduction to Daniels at one of the middle school’s “quarterback academies,” one of the secrets to the accelerated pace California quarterbacks develop.
“So Dave (Money) says to me one day, ‘you’ve got to come sit in the room and listen to this kid conceptualize, analyze,’ “ Rollinson said. “My first reaction was ‘yeah, great, go listen to sixth grader,’ but I wanted to support Dave. But then of course I was blown away.
“JT’s ability to communicate and verbalize, and the poise and thirst for knowledge. It’s like a kid who is a savant in math who gets fired up when a teacher gets a problem up, you could see his wheels turning and he took copious notes.”
Rollinson said they found six spiral-bound notebooks, filled with notes, when they cleaned out Daniels’ locker after he left their program.
“He’ll bring that analytical ability,” Rollinson said, “when Georgia finally turns him loose.”
The Daniels’ delay at Georgia has been about mobility. The last thing Smart is going to do is knowingly put a player at risk, and there has remained a lingering doubt as to just how much mobility, and how much stress, Daniels’ right knee can take.
Smart has said more than once UGA doesn’t tackle quarterbacks in practice, thus the mobility question cannot truly be answered until game action.
Daniels’ injury story has been told, and re-told, to the point most fans know he went down with a torn ACL and meniscus in his right knee in the second quarter of USC’s 2019 season-opening game against Fresno State.
Daniels was 25-of-34 passing for 215 yards at the time, on his way to what surely would have been the fourth 300-yard game of his career, and possibly the first 400-yard passing performance.
The year before, Daniels had three 300-yard performances including a 30-for-48 performance (322 yards) at Texas that made him the first USC freshman QB to hit 300 yards since Matt Barkley in 2009.
The Trojans, however, were struggling on staff and on the field. Daniels endured three different play callers and the team stumbled down the stretch, losing four of its final five games by a combined total of 18 points.
Noted OC Graham Harrell was brought in to save USC football and Clay Helton’s job as head coach,. It appeared that with Daniels he would do just that.
But then the injury, and then freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis took over and performed exceptionally well, earning the trust and understandably growing close to Harrell.
Daniels, given a second chance to restart his career, Daniels went in search for a championship-level program with stability and an offensive future that fit his skillset.
Georgia was the best fit, Kirby Smart having hired Todd Monken to jump-start the offense with NFL Air Raid principles. Washington, Michigan and Tennessee had all come calling, but Daniels loved the feel of Georgia football and believes he can help provide answers on offense.
Georgia does know what it has with Daniels, but his comeback from injury — along with Stetson Bennett’s relative success — has kept the SoCal quarterback sidelined.
Some 3 1/2 months ago, Daniels was getting work with the ones, along with fellow transfer Jamie Newman.
But after the first scrimmage it became obvious Newman was not the outright choice for the starting job, even after 7 months in the program, and the Wake Forest graduate transfer opted out on the season.
Daniels, a heavy brace on his right leg, appeared ear-marked for the starting job with Smart anticipating he would be cleared for the season-opening game at Arkansas.
When Daniels wasn’t cleared, Smart turned the first- and second-team reps over to D’Wan Mathis and Bennett leading into the Arkansas game. The season has unfolded from there, Georgia’s ability to control their own destiny now behind them.
And yet, the future lies ahead, with Daniels in position to lead the way amid an offense filled with young offensive talents ready to rally around a capable leader.
Receivers George Pickens, Kearis Jackson, Jermaine Burton and Matt Landers all set to return to build up NFL drams. Tight ends Tre’ McKitty and Darnell Washington, along with tailbacks James Cook, Kenny McIntosh and Kendall Milton, could blossom with a quarterback capable of distributing the football.
Has JT Daniels finally found his time and place to carve a legacy, more than 2,000 miles from home, halfway through a program’s seemingly lost season and on his second chance?
“Georgia has the talent,” Rollinson said. “But you have to be able to take what they are giving you, and JT is a magician when it comes to that stuff.”
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