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DJ Daniel has been a pleasant surprise in the words of Kirby Smart.

How DJ Daniel has gone from ‘pleasant surprise’ to key contributor at cornerback

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How DJ Daniel became a key Georgia football defensive back

ATHENS —  Most Georgia fans weren’t too upset when junior college prospect DJ Daniel initially committed to South Carolina in the 2019 recruiting cycle. Despite being ranked as the No. 6 JUCO player in the country, most in the college football world don’t get too excited about JUCO prospects.

While these players tend to be more physically developed, they also have fewer years of eligibility. And it’s not a guarantee they’re able to come in and play right away given the jump in competition.

Javon Wims was a JUCO success story for the Georgia program, as he led the 2017 team in receiving. But through his first six games in Athens in 2016, he had just two receptions.

“We want those guys to be able to play right away, but we’re not always right,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “Sometimes they have an extra year they can redshirt and still play two,”

But so far Daniel does not look like a redshirt candidate. In fact, there’s a real chance he ends up starting on Saturday when Georgia opens against Vanderbilt.

There’s a reason why Smart and his staff didn’t just target Daniel in the 2019 recruiting cycle but had to flip him from South Carolina.

In a rather surprising announcement, Daniel first committed to the Gamecocks in August of 2018. But the Bulldogs were eventually able to get the Georgia Military College standout in the 2019 signing class as he flipped to Georgia in November.

Related: Georgia was always on the mind of D.J. Daniel, Bulldogs cornerback

Daniel was the lowest-ranked member of the three defensive backs Georgia signed in the 2019 cycle. Safety Lewis Cine, cornerback Tyrquie Stevenson and Daniel all enrolled early and went through spring practice. But Daniel — given his JUCO status — was able to work and practice with the Bulldogs in the run-up to the Sugar Bowl.

Smart said that the staff wasn’t focused on developing Daniel during those practices. That was what the spring was for. But Daniel was able to practice against the likes of Riley Ridley and Mecole Hardman. That helped him acclimate to the rigors of the college game.

At various points since his enrollment, Smart — one of the best defensive minds in recent college football history — has given praise to Daniel. After the first scrimmage, Smart called Daniel a “pleasant surprise.”

Since then he’s begun to take reps with the first team at cornerback. Daniel was spotted working with the first unit at Monday’s practice alongside Eric Stokes. But Smart cautioned against reading too much into who lines up where in drills.

“He’s done a nice job, but DJ’s got a ways to go, too,” Smart said. “He’s a guy who’s growing in our system and our system is not easy to learn. He’s done a good job trying to grind, meet at it and meet with Coach Warren a lot.”

Stokes and sophomore cornerback Tyson Campbell both have meaningful playing experience from a season ago. But Smart made it very clear this season that Georgia isn’t going to play the same two cornerbacks all the time. He’ll mix and match Stokes, Campbell, Daniel and Stevenson to try and stifle opposing offenses.

Think of Campbell like NBA guard John Wall. He’s long and has speed for days. He can — or could prior to his Achilles injury —rely on his athleticism to try and slow down an opposing point guard. Continuing the NBA point guard analogy, think of Daniel like Chris Paul. He might not be as big and imposing as some of his contemporaries, but his physical style makes him a nightmare for the other team.

“He’s going to fight for everything he’s got,” Stokes said. “I personally respect DJ because DJ comes in and I know he does what he’s supposed to do. I know on my other side he’s going to give everything that he’s got.”

And that physicality might be why he does end up getting a start against Vanderbilt. The Bulldogs have to replace Deandre Baker, the 2018 Jim Thorpe Award winner. Baker wasn’t some otherworldly athletic freak, but earned his reputation as one of the best cornerbacks in the country thanks to his physical style.

A season ago, Baker held Vanderbilt wide receiver Kalija Lipscomb to just 2 catches for 16 yards. It was his worst outing of the season. And having a player who can somewhat replicate Baker’s physical nature is why Daniel is going to have a chance to play right away for the Bulldogs.

“I don’t think anybody in the country will tell you they’re going to take a junior college player to not play him,” Smart said. “That’s no intent in that.”

Georgia football coach Kirby Smart discusses Georgia football defensive backs

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