LOS ANGELES — USC football coach Clay Helton knew Georgia was getting a special player in JT Daniels, just as he knew some seven years ago the Trojans had yet another dynamic quarterback growing in their backyard.

“JT was one that would come to the camps, and even as a seventh-grader, you were like ‘Wow, this kid is special, he’s different,’ " Helton said. “He’s got a football mind, he’s got a great work ethic, a blue-collar mentality, and obviously a unique talent.

“To watch him grow up and have an amazing high school career, and now have a great college career, I’m so excited for him and so excited for the Daniels Family.”

Early Start

USC has one of the richest quarterback collections in college football history, which made it all the more impressive that Daniels was only the second quarterback in Trojans’ history to start the first game of his true freshman season.

Even more amazing, Daniels did it after reclassifying so he could attend college in what should have been his senior season at Mater Dei and managed to win this job without the benefit of spring drills.

Helton explained why he had the confidence to put Daniels on the field that early.

“One, having watched him grown up and know his football mindset, extremely intelligent both on the field and off,’ Helton said. “And being able to reclassify and graduate early was a credit to him and all the work he did.

“You’re looking at a kid that was supposed to be in his senior year, and he’s starting for us and we did have a lot of faith in him. We’ve always said the best player plays at USC, and we are about the competition here. It doesn’t matter how old you are, and it doesn’t matter where you are from. The best player plays, and at that time he was our best quarterback.”

Daniels’ freshman season with USC had its ups and downs. Helton worked to manage an offensive staff that divided up duties between offensive coordinator/receivers coach Tee Martin and then-new quarterbacks coach Bryan Ellis.

The Trojans had ultra-talented receivers that 2018 season, but it wasn’t the best version of USC offensive line play. Still, Helton had confidence in his young quarterback.

“We knew there would be some growing pains, but we knew he would grow from it,” Helton said. “From everything we had seen, if he made a mistake, we would coach him on it, and it wouldn’t happen again.

“So this kid just grew day in and day out and through that first year, you just saw him getting better and better.”

There were indeed tough times, with losses to Stanford and UCLA in games Daniels threw two interceptions.

But Daniels also flashed his big-game skills, out-dueling future NFL quarterback Gardner Minshew in a 39-36 come-from-behind win over Washington State. There were more offensive fireworks from Daniels against a No. 3-ranked and undefeated Notre Dame team, as he completed 37 of 51 passes for 349 yards and a TD in a 24-17 loss.

Player Development

Daniels was poised for a big sophomore season with then-new offensive coordinator Graham Harrell. Helton, a former college quarterback at Auburn and Houston himself, had seen the sort of growth out of Daniels that separates good from great quarterbacks.

“The thing I thought he grew on was his anticipatory skills of getting the ball out quick,” Helton said. “He always had a quick release, but he really began to diagnose the speed to the game from high school to college and how quickly the windows close.

“As he progressed through that season you could see him anticipate windows and start throwing kids open, rather than seeing them open and pulling the trigger.”

The first half of the opening game against Fresno State previewed as much, Daniels 25-of-34 passage or 215 yards before suffering a season-ending knee injury in the second quarter.

Still, Daniels spent his time with the team working along ide freshman Kedon Slovis. Daniels shared his game prep system and notes with Slovis, who went on to have a Freshman All-American season.

“They are both pros, and they will both being throwing the ball on Sundays,” Helton said. “There was this, not only professionalism but the camaraderie, between the two. They cheered for each other, they rooted for each other and they leaned on each other and talked ball. They wanted to improve together.”

On To Georgia

The quarterback position, however, is one that does not allow for much platooning. Daniels went to Helton after the 2019 season and let him know he wanted to explore his options via the transfer portal.

“It was a special situation with Kedon Slovis coming off a season, where he had a dynamic season,” Helton said. “Obviously those two kids would have competed in the fall for the job, but I didn’t hold it against JT or his family that he wanted to explore.

“So we were right there with the Daniels Family all the way through. They would bounce ideas off me, ‘Coach what do you think of this system, or this opportunity?’

“They found a place that they felt with the timing and the need at Georgia, and the system at Georgia, that the fit for JT was a good one.”

Helton shared the advice he gave Daniels before the former Trojan pulled the trigger on leaving for the SEC.

“The only recommendation I had, because we had left the door open at USC and wanted him on our football team, we always want good people and good players on the team,” Helton explained, “but when he said, ‘Coach I think I’m going to make this move,’ I said, ‘One of the things JT, make sure when you make that decision you have no regrets, hit it full speed, and don’t look back.’

“And I knew he was going to do that. And, wow, what a great job he’s done not only competing at Georgia and winning the job, but now really producing for his team.”

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