ATHENS — Bruce Rollinson looked outside the team hotel in Sacramento three years ago and got the gnawing suspicion California superpower Concord De La Salle would foil his dreams once more.
Rollinson’s Mater Dei team was undefeated, but De La Salle was looming. The storied Northern California program has been so dominant, it set the national record with 151 straight wins, and it has appeared in the state title game 12 straight years.
Four times, the green-clad Spartans had derailed Rollinson and his Monarchs’ program.
This time would be different.
This time, Rollinson had JT Daniels under center, a high school legend who 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.
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Some three years later, Daniels is no longer playing for perfection. He’s no longer regarded as the can’t-miss SoCal kid headed for glory as he prepares to take the field in Sanford Stadium and spark a sputtering Georgia offense.
Daniels is expect to make his debut as the starter for the No. 13-ranked Bulldogs (4-2) against Mississippi State (2-4) at 7:30 p.m., striving to win over Coach Kirby Smart and prove himself UGA’s quarterback of the future.
But in 2017, in his final high school game, Daniels was intent on leaving a legacy. Matt Leinart and Matt Barkley had come before him in Mater Dei’s rich quarterback tradition. But neither had run the table to the tune of a CIF State Open Division championship, much less a perfect record.
“So the game is at Sacramento State, just my luck, it’s cold, really cold, and we’re a Southern California team so we get cold when it’s in the 60s,” Rollinson said, launching the tale of his Monarchs’ perfect 15-0 national high school championship season.
“We’re taping up and getting ready to go over to the stadium, and I look out the window and the trees are bending over sideways, and the wind is up to 40 mph,” Rollinson said. “By the time we get to the stadium the sun dropped and they say it’s 26 degrees with the wind.”
Mater Dei opened up the game deep in their own territory, “third-and-12, ball on the left hash going into the wind,” Rollinson said. “The call is to go to the wide side of the field, a comeback route 15 yards downfield.
“JT let it fly into the wind, into good coverage, and he completes it. I remember looking at their coaching staff, and you could see they were all looking at each other wondering, ‘how did he do that?’ “
Daniels did it the same way he managed the rest of the game that night, 20-of-30 passing for 233 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions. Daniels, the Gatorade National Player of the Year in 2017, also had two rushing touchdowns, one of them from 40 yards out.
“Every week is the same as the week before,” Daniels said to the Orange County Register that night. “We had unfinished business from last year. Nothing was going to stop us.”
Daniels has not yet opened for business as far as UGA fans are concerned, his action limited to closed practices since he arrived on campus in May.
College football saw a full season of Daniels at Southern Cal, but his numbers that 2018 season were dubious for that 5-7 Trojans team.
Daniels was 216-for-363 passing for 2,672 yards with 14 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
Daniels had three 300-yard games to his credit, including a 37-of-51 passing performance for 349 yards and a TD in a 24-17 loss to Notre Dame, but it was below expectations.
The Trojans had shuffled through three play callers that season, leading to former Texas Tech QB Graham Harrell being brought in as the new OC after the season.
Daniels was off to a good start under Harrell his sophomore season, 25-of-34 passing for 215 yards and a TD in the second quarter, when his season came to a sudden and unexpected end.
“It wasn’t a sophisticated blitz and stunt, they blew a protection and JT was the victim,” Rollinson said, a former USC player himself clearly bitter at how his former star pupil’s career as a Trojan would end.
“You put talent around him and give him time to do what he does … when a kid has adversity, when your career is threatened, and you are being questioned, Gatorade National Player of the Year and all that stuff — you will either rise up an accept the challenge or disappear.
“I’m telling you, when he gets this opportunity, he’s going to shine.”
The wind won’t be blowing as it was that night at Sacramento State’s Stadium. Temperatures aren’t likely to drop below 50 degrees in Sanford Stadium, and there’s no championship on the line.
But for Daniels and the Georgia Bulldogs football team he’s now being charged to lead, there remains plenty of unfinished business, and it starts on Saturday night.
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