A can’t-miss quarterback prospect’s last chance

HOUSTON — JT Daniels strolled out of the USC football offices with butterflies in the pit of his stomach, nervously excited by the realization that, “I’m the starter.

At a mere 18 years old, he had the coveted job — starting quarterback at USC — that legends such as Matt Leinart, Carson Palmer and Sam Darnold once did. Poised to become only the second true freshman quarterback in Trojan history to start a season opener (Matt Barkley in 2009 was the other), he had the world at his feet. He imagined keeping the reins for three years, maybe four, perhaps winning a Heisman Trophy and then going on to a lucrative NFL career.

Nearly five years later, Daniels sits in a mostly empty dining hall inside the team facility at Rice University. He’s bigger now. Five years of training to play at college football’s highest level show on his frame. He’s no longer the wide-eyed teenager he was then and it’s clear when he speaks, with the pragmatism of someone years older. This is his fourth stop in a college career that has seen him bounce from USC to Georgia to West Virginia to, finally, Rice, this private school in Houston that hasn’t had a winning season in nearly a decade.

That grand plan? That was set aside long ago for the can’t-miss prospect and former high school player of the year from California powerhouse Mater Dei High. As a 23-year-old graduate student making his final college stop, his ambitions are more grounded now: Paired with a head coach he has known for more than a third of his life, he intends to help Rice win, and in the process show NFL scouts that despite his nomadic college career, he can be a pro quarterback.

His transition from five-star recruit to starting quarterback at a blue blood happened so fast. His father wonders if it was too fast.

One moment, Daniels was taking nearly a dozen high school classes to graduate in time to attend USC; the next, he was leading one of the most historic programs in college football. After his debut, a 43-21 win over UNLV, fans chanted “JT! JT! JT! JT!” as he walked into the Los Angeles Coliseum tunnel.

“There are so many things you can look back on and say, ‘If we just slowed it down a little bit instead of us and (head coach Clay) Helton pressing the pedal to the metal, maybe it would have been a little easier to get in and go,” Steve Daniels, JT’s father, says. “I think all the talent was there; he just wasn’t ready for that kind of experience.”

More than 2,400 FBS scholarship players entered the NCAA transfer portal from August 2022 to August 2023, and the well-traveled Daniels has become their unofficial spokesman. In June, he sat alongside ACC commissioner Jim Phillips on a panel discussing transfer rules, and he says more than 30 players have reached out to him for advice on the topic.

“There’s much more that goes into leaving a university than just personal decision,” Daniels says. “Some guys have been shown the door (by coaches). Some guys just felt like it wasn’t the right place for them. There are times where leaving has nothing to do with the sport of football.

“It’s very rarely as simple as you think it is looking in from the outside.”

Daniels arrived at USC in 2018 as advanced as they come. Mater Dei coaches entrusted him to call and change offensive plays as an underclassman. “He was a 50-year-old man in an 18-year-old body,” former USC quarterbacks coach Bryan Ellis says.

Initially a prospect in the Class of 2019, Daniels reclassified to take advantage of a wide-open quarterback race after Darnold declared for the NFL Draft. The move worked, and Daniels won USC’s starting quarterback job despite missing spring football.

“It was more than that he gave us the best chance to win,” Ellis says. “He was the best player.”

The cold reality of the college football “business” set in during Daniels’ freshman year. After an up-and-down 5-7 season, Helton made staff changes, including hiring Graham Harrell as the Trojans’ offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.

Months later, with 27 seconds left in the first half of USC’s 2019 opener against Fresno State, Daniels was sacked and tore multiple ligaments in his right knee. Just like that, his sophomore season was finished.

After the game, Harrell called Daniels to check in, expecting to hear his quarterback’s disappointment. Instead, Harrell says, “It was kind of like, ‘It happened, and I’m gonna be all right.’”

Daniel’s composed resolve at the first of many inflection points of his career harkened to his leaning on “neutral thinking,”  a philosophy he adopted from the late mental conditioning coach Trevor Moawad, whose client list included Nick Saban, Kirby Smart and Russell Wilson.

“It’s probably the most significant aspect of performance psychology that I continually use,” Daniels says.

But as composed as he appeared to the outside world, the adversity affected him. At Mater Dei, he had been part of what Ellis dubbed “a superteam.” He had thrown for more than 12,000 yards and 152 touchdowns in three seasons, leading the team to a state and national title in 2017.

So when things got tough at USC, he discovered he couldn’t do it alone. Whether performing behind a struggling offensive line, or uplifting a reeling team, it took more than just the flick of JT’s right wrist to fix it. “There was a realization that you can’t just transcend the issues by yourself,” Steve Daniels says. “It needs a village to all be there together.”

Except that village now had a new QB in Kedon Slovis, who stepped in for the injured Daniels and threw for 3,502 yards, 30 touchdowns and nine interceptions that season.

In a 2021 interview with SEC Network’s “Marty & McGee,” JT admitted the adjustment from consistent success in high school to the ups and downs of college ball took a mental toll.

“I was always pretty good at handling success, but I never had been tested until I got to college,” he said. “The first two years, I was down on myself mentally. I was not doing great.”

In April 2020, Daniels put his name in the transfer portal for the first time.

His first year at Georgia starkly contrasted the whirlwind he experienced at USC. There was time for him to settle in before he entered the lineup. As he returned to total health, he worked on the Bulldogs’ scout team.

When his number was finally called, two-thirds into the 2020 season, he performed well, elevating Georgia’s offense by completing 67 percent of his passes, averaging 10 yards per attempt and throwing 10 touchdowns passes and two interceptions. Along the way, he led the Bulldogs to four wins, including a comeback victory over Cincinnati in the Peach Bowl.

There was a sense that Daniels’ time had finally arrived. He was a preseason All-SEC selection and even got some Heisman Trophy hype from oddsmakers.

Before he could take off, injuries grounded him again. An oblique injury caused him to miss Georgia’s second game of the season. In Week 4, a lat strain limited him to just a quarter of play. By October, Daniels’ status was week-to-week. Meanwhile, Stetson Bennett IV began to emerge in Daniels’ absence.

As Daniels got closer to game-ready, the quarterback debate became a hot topic. Who gave Georgia the best chance of winning it all: Daniels, the former five-star recruit, or Bennett, the former walk-on?

The Bulldogs stuck with Bennett, but the decision was scrutinized, particularly after Georgia’s 41-24 loss to Alabama in the 2021 SEC championship game, one in which Bennett was intercepted twice while Daniels, 7-0 as Georgia’s starter, remained entrenched on the sideline.

Weeks after that loss, then-Georgia offensive coordinator Todd Monken said the reason the Bulldogs stuck with Bennett “wasn’t really anything JT did, it was more along the lines of what Stetson did that we thought gave us the best chance to win, his mobility, those things, in the run game and the pass game when things break down.”

In the College Football Playoff semifinals, Bennett threw for 313 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions in a blowout of Michigan. On Jan. 10, 2022, he led the Bulldogs to the national championship in their rematch with Alabama.

A week later, Bennett announced he would return for the 2022 season. Daniels entered the portal for yet a second time.

Daniels’ third stop, West Virginia, included a reunion with Harrell, his offensive coordinator at USC.

Although Harrell knew Daniels well, head coach Neal Brown didn’t. Despite Daniels’ transfers, Brown entered the relationship with an open mind.

“We have more guys in our building doing extra recovery or watching film on their own,” Brown says now. “I think JT has a lot to do with that because he set an example while he was here. … He went out of his way to get to know the guys.”

Daniels won the starting job and, coincidentally, began his 2022 season facing the quarterback who supplanted him at USC: Slovis, who had transferred to Pitt. The Mountaineers lost that game in excruciating fashion on a catchable pass that bounced the wrong way and was returned for a 56-yard touchdown, followed by a fourth-and-22 pass by Daniels that was ruled incomplete at the Pitt one with less than a minute remaining.

Undeterred, Daniels threw for 365 yards and three touchdowns the next time out, but West Virginia dropped to 0-2 by losing to Kansas. On the heels of a 3-3 start in which the team averaged 39 points per game, the Mountaineers lost three straight as Daniels threw a combined four touchdowns and five interceptions.

Harrell, now the offensive coordinator at Purdue, attributed Daniels’ eventual benching more to scheme change than poor play.

“I don’t think it was anything to do with JT,” he says. “JT played at a really high level until we started changing on him and asking the quarterback to do things that weren’t his skill set.”

Both Brown and Harrell say Daniels handled the change well. Brown called it “a very mature” conversation. “Our experience, other than not winning enough games, was extremely positive,” Brown says.

With the offense moving away from his strengths and Harrell departing,  Daniels entered the portal one last time.

With JT Daniels under center, there’s hope that the Rice offense can take off. (Courtesy of Rice Athletics)

Before the glamour of USC called five years ago, Daniels was infatuated with Stanford. The feeling was mutual. He was the first 2019 recruit the Cardinal offered.

As a high school freshman, Daniels attended a Stanford camp, and Mike Bloomgren, then the Cardinal’s offensive coordinator, was blown away. He quizzed the quarterback on pass protections and Daniels explained them the way an NFL quarterback would.

“Ninth graders don’t think about that stuff,” Bloomgren said. “We had players in the NFL who it didn’t make sense to like that. But with him, it has always been like that.”

As his profile rose at Mater Dei, his recruitment took off. Even though blue bloods courted him, Stanford remained in contention. “Stanford was much more my dream school than USC was,” Daniels shared earlier this year. “I was very, very close to going to Stanford.”

The Cardinal were one of four finalists for Daniels, joining USC, Michigan and Washington. But “the bright lights and the fact that he could skip a year, those things foolishly let us move away from (Stanford),” Steve says.

Bloomgren, who became Rice’s head coach in 2018, was among the first to call Daniels when he entered the portal in 2020 after USC. When Daniels left Georgia, Bloomgren and his offensive coordinator at Rice, Marques Tuiasosopo, made an in-home visit.

When Daniels hit the portal for a third time, the courtship happened in a blink. And when Daniels called to commit to Rice, “even the dog was excited,” said Bloomgren.

It took eight years, but Bloomgren finally landed his quarterback.

Daniels relishes this last chance to prove himself, and Bloomgren, who is 16-39 in five seasons at Rice, needs a winning season in the Owls’ new conference, the AAC, to restore fan and alumni faith in his long-term vision.

In Rice’s offense, a carbon copy of what he would have played at Stanford, Daniels is in his element. From checking plays at the line of scrimmage to delivering the ball quickly and accurately, he looks comfortable.

“It just plays into my strengths,” he says.

With Daniels under center, there’s hope that the offense can take off. The last time the Owls finished in the top five in their conference in scoring was in 2014, their last season with a winning record. If Daniels and receiver Luke McCaffrey can make magic, perhaps the Owls can become truly bowl-eligible for the first time in nine years (the Owls played in the LendingTree Bowl last season as a five-win team).

And if he succeeds, maybe he can reach the next level after all.

“Since the first time I saw the kid throw, since the first time I watched him play in a game, I always thought this kid could be an NFL player,” Bloomgren says.

The next time Daniels starts — Sept. 2, when Rice opens its season at No. 11 Texas — the butterflies won’t be the same as they were as a freshman at USC. He’s done this all before, only this time he’ll be the underdog playing against the blue blood in a packed stadium as the visitor.

When Daniels and his family embarked on this journey five years ago, this wasn’t where they thought he’d be. Injuries and tough luck sparked a detour, but his desired ending is still attainable.

“Has it gone perfectly? Of course not,” Steve says. “But would I trade hardly any of it? I don’t think so.

“And I don’t think that he would either.”

(Illustration: John Bradford / The Athletic; photos: Jordan Murph, Todd Kirkland, John E. Moore III / Getty Images; Courtesy of Rice Athletics)

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