JT Daniels' talent hides the hard work it took for him to get to USC

ByKyle Bonagura via ESPN logo
Friday, September 7, 2018

LOS ANGELES -- JT Daniels maintains he's still a kid and still does kid things.

It's just hard to figure out what they are or when he has the time. Because over the past year, he has been spentjust about every waking moment working toward what became reality on Saturday, when he became just the second true freshman quarterback in USC history to start the season opener in the Trojans' 43-21 win against UNLV.

It was only one game and will likely be the easiest one on the schedule, but there wasn't anything about his performance to dispel the notion that the next big thing has arrived. Daniels' 282 yards passing were the most ever for a USC quarterback in his debut.

"Being a first-time starter, first game, true freshman, I expected him to have a lot more jitters or nervousness, and he didn't show any signs of it," USC offensive coordinator Tee Martin said. "I looked at him in pregame. He was bouncing around. He was looking normal and went out and played that way."

That Daniels emerged from the Trojans' three-man competition to win the starting job should have surprised exactly no one. Since the day Daniels went public with his decision to reclassify from the Class of 2019, graduate a full year early from famed Mater Dei High School in nearby Orange County and enroll at USC, the widely held presumption was that the job -- with Sam Darnold off to the NFL -- was his to lose.

What Daniels' obvious talent hides, perhaps, is just how much work it took to go from a high school junior to the Trojans' starting quarterback in less than a year. That included taking 11 classes during the spring semester. That meant making the drive north from Orange County to attend every USC spring practice, sit in on team meetings, throw with receivers and watch as much film as possible. When he wasn't engrossed in something football-related, it wasn't uncommon for him to be seen doing his homework inside the football building.

"It wasn't very fun. It was just something you had to get done," Daniels said. "I had to get it done to come to USC."

Had Daniels not lived locally, he's not sure he would have been able to get up to speed in time to be ready to start from Day 1.

"I think that played a massive role helping me to compete now," he said. "If I had not been able to come up during the spring, I would have been much further behind in terms of being able to execute the offense."

He realized that long before he arrived. Sitting inside the Mater Dei football offices in January, Daniels laid out a detailed plan to give himself a shot at winning the starting job. Of course, that included a serious weightlifting regiment aimed at adding size and improving his speed, but Daniels realized the mental side of the game would be even more important.

"I don't have a chance [to win the job] if I don't know the playbook by heart," he said at the time. "I have to understand college defenses, and I'll be in communication with a lot of people with that. Learn how to manage my time better for college. There is a wide range of things I have to do to get ready.

"There are no hobbies outside of football and school right now."

And, by all accounts, he followed through on that.

"I thought he made a huge investment from the day he signed. We sent him the playbook and he dived right in," USC coach Clay Helton said. "To take that playbook and watch kids run it in practice ... he was serious about his business."

Added quarterbacks coach Bryan Ellis: "I've never seen a high school quarterback work as hard when he's not even here which allowed him to get good as quick as he did. That's why he's our quarterback."

Daniels' obsessive nature is something Mater Dei coach Bruce Rollinson dealt with regularly -- almost begrudgingly, at times -- as Daniels became one of the most decorated high school football players in history. Rollinson, who is in his 30th season at the school, regularly found himself, late in the evenings, telling Daniels to go home.

"We could go into his locker and probably find six notebooks full of notes that he's taken from all the meetings," Rollinson said. "JT never went into a film study, whether it was with the entire offense or the skill players and not take copious notes. JT -- and the same with the other great ones -- they would ask questions that the normal kids didn't ask."

When Rollinson refers to great ones, he's not loosely throwing it around. Former USC stars Matt Leinart and Matt Barkley are two of the nearly 20 quarterbacks who have gone through Mater Dei and on to the Division I level during Rollinson's impressive tenure. Last year, though, was likely his best team. The Monarchs went 15-0, won the California State Open Division title and were widely considered the best team in the country.

Envisioning what the Monarchs' explosive offense looked like won't require much imagination for USC fans. Daniels' top receiver on that team, Amon-Ra St. Brown, caught seven passes for 98 yards and a 43-yard touchdown in his debut for the Trojans on Saturday. The duo has played together since the two were in middle school -- when Daniels' dad coached their team -- and has all the makings to become one of the great quarterback-receiver combinations in school history.

To earn that type of distinction, however, USC will also have to win big. And there might not end up being a bigger game on the schedule this season than Saturday's game at No. 10 Stanford.

"As everybody knows with Stanford, they're a super-well-coached, well-disciplined, all-around defense with a lot of really good players," Daniels said. "We're going to have to play a really good ballgame."

Daniels' respect for the Cardinal isn't a one-way street. Count Stanford coach David Shaw among those who weren't caught off guard by the quarterback's rapid ascent.

"I don't think any of us that saw JT play in high school the last couple years are surprised, No. 1, that he won the job and, No. 2, that he went out there and was effective," Shaw said. "He's got a quick release. He's very accurate. He's very calm. You're not going to rattle him. He's a football gym rat."

And all that work he put in was done with games like this one against Stanford in mind.

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