When head coach Clay Helton announced Sunday that true freshman JT Daniels would be taking over the helm as the Trojans’ starting quarterback for Saturday’s season opener against UNLV, he was taking a risk — albeit a calculated one.
With a total of three collegiate games played — not started, but played — among the three rostered quarterbacks, the competition for the starting job among redshirt sophomore Matt Fink, redshirt freshman Jack Sears and Daniels started on a rather even playing field. The one wrinkle thrown into that situation was the fact that only a year ago, Daniels was supposed to be entering his senior year of high school while Fink and Sears began fall camp.
For Daniels, just about all the tangibles and intangibles of a Power Five starting quarterback are there. Throwing for over 4,100 yards with 52 touchdowns in his final season at Mater Dei? Check. Collecting the best possible personal and team accolades possible in winning a state and national championship while being honored as the 2017-18 Gatorade High School Male Athlete of the Year? Check. Showing, by all accounts, wisdom well beyond his years and a capacity for the limelight that has become a necessity as the USC signal caller? Check.
Yet, the inherent risk lies in a player who has only formally practiced with the team for a few months. Learning the playbook, creating chemistry with upperclassmen wideouts such as redshirt sophomore Tyler Vaughns and junior Michael Pittman: These are skills that can only come with time.
In his eyes, however, Helton feels that Daniels’ time has come. His maturity is the quality that shines through more than any other.
“As you can imagine JT was excited when we let him know,” Helton said. “But his uncanny maturity kept him focused on what is next.”
As is with the theme of Daniels’ college career so far, the quarterback enters rarified territory becoming just the second true freshman to start a USC season opener since Matt Barkley in 2009. In fact, Daniels is just one of four to ever do so at USC, joining Barkley, Heisman trophy winner Carson Palmer and Cotton Bowl champion Rob Johnson.
The biggest lingering question about Daniels is his ability to come in and ease the pain of transitioning from an all-time USC great in Sam Darnold to, well, anyone else. If anything, Daniels is a barometer of what kind of program the Trojans are at the moment.
In the early 2000s, USC was able to replace Palmer with Matt Leinart, a Heisman trophy winner and two-time national champion. John David Booty, who won two Rose Bowls, would follow Leinart. Compare this to the years that would follow in which many talented, highly touted quarterbacks would fail to maintain the same level of excellence, and it leaves the Trojans in a state of flux.
As much as Daniels will be interesting to watch for his own growth as a player, it will be even more appealing to watch what he does to continue Darnold’s legacy of success.
Who knows? Maybe after all the fire Helton has come under since being hired two years ago, it turns out he’s just as great a quarterback whisperer as Pete Carroll. Certainly, it will take a few national championships with some Heisman trophies sprinkled in before we can properly compare the two, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility.
In terms of what will be seen from Daniels now, it is unreasonable to have the same expectations for him that fans and media alike had of Darnold a year ago. Daniels, as good as he may be, is unlikely to be playing for a national championship this year. He may not even play for a Rose Bowl; currently the sights are set on taking the season one week at a time.
Unlike Darnold, Daniels is in a situation where he can truly grow. First, while he has just come out of a quarterback competition in camp, he doesn’t have a five-star junior like Max Browne breathing down his neck. Second, Daniels gets real game action and plenty of practice reps to work with the first team offense, luxuries not truly afforded to Darnold until Week 4 of his magical 2016 campaign.
Lastly, Daniels is a true freshman. At the very least, he will have a full three years to work in the USC system, establish his play style, and, even, bring USC back to the level it was at heading into 2017.
For now, Daniels and Helton are just worried about UNLV, and they’ll let the rest of their bright future together fall into place.
Jimmy Goodman is a junior majoring in communication. His column, “The Point After,” runs every other Tuesday.