JT Daniels had a realization on the first day of fall camp: Everyone belongs here.
“I played at a great high school against great competition, but when you’re in college, everyone belongs,” the freshman quarterback said. “There’s nobody that’s a scrub. The game moves faster, everyone is a lot bigger, everyone’s a lot stronger. Nobody sucks anymore.”
Daniels had a seemingly smooth high school football career. He left Mater Dei High School a year early, following an undefeated season and a state title. Daniels came to USC at an opportune time, as Sam Darnold declared for the NFL Draft, leaving the quarterback position vacant.
But collegiate success wasn’t ensured following his high school career.
Before Daniels even took a collegiate snap, before he was declared the starting quarterback, the expectations couldn’t have been set higher for the 18-year-old freshman.
“Go ahead and believe the hype,” read a headline in the Los Angeles Times on Aug. 11. “The next great USC QB shouldn’t even be in college,” wrote The Ringer six days later. And “The JT Daniels hype machine in full gear,” Inside USC said on May 4.
Those headlines overwhelmed the collegiate football world leading up to the 2018 season.
At USC, Daniels was touted as the savior who would fill Darnold’s shoes. But the expectations and narratives that flooded college football were never things that Daniels considered.
“As much as you would think those expectations would weigh down on someone, I don’t care one bit about those expectations,” Daniels said. “[The senior leaders on the team] really helped to teach me that that stuff doesn’t matter. You get in here and work and do your best to be a part of this team. All I’m worried about is doing my job for the team.”
Young quarterbacks, especially those as young as the 18-year-old Daniels, are often faced with a catch-22 situation: They are expected to be leaders on the field, despite having the least seniority. Daniels recognized this dilemma and understood that vocal leadership would be counter-productive to the team. Instead, he opted to lead by example.
“I don’t think it would be successful for me to walk in here and start telling people what to do,” Daniels said. “It was more about always being in the right situation for myself and doing the right thing on and off the field, and guys will gravitate towards that.”
But when the Trojans lost several games they were projected to win, it led many to question if the attention was too much for the young passer.
“You’re not going to go undefeated in college and win every game in the league,” Daniels said. “That’s not the reality of the game.”
Daniels realized that sentiment early in the season after suffering his first loss in over a year to Stanford on Sept. 8 and a brutal 37-14 defeat at the hands of Texas a week later. The season didn’t get any easier from there. The Trojans face UCLA at the Rose Bowl on Saturday with a 5-5 record, desperate for a win in one of their final two games to become bowl eligible. They are on pace for their worst season since the beginning of the Pete Carroll era in 2001.
Despite the tumultuous season, Daniels’ father, Steve, thinks his son is thriving under the pressure.
“I think he is handling [the losses] really well,” Steve said. “Frankly the challenges that are there are just making him work harder … Seeing him go after his goals and see them not come as easily, kind of just reiterates who he is. Because he doesn’t care about individual awards, but he wants his team to be as good as it can possibly be.”
The headlines didn’t stop at Daniels’ on-field performance. Months before the season opener, Bleacher Report published an article that described Daniels adopting Buddhism, a claim that both Daniels and his parents refuted.
In reality, Daniels just sees worth in some Buddhist teachings, according to his father. Steve compared it to his son’s football training, how learning techniques from former NFL quarterback Jordan Palmer doesn’t mean Daniels worships Jordan Palmer.
“He just finds things that work, and he uses them,” Steve said.
Daniels frequently watches content from social media influencers focused on self-improvement. One of his favorite channels is “Impact Theory,” founded by Tom Bilyeu, one of Daniels’ life role models. The channel focuses on steps to success to expanding one’s mind.
“It’s a motivational thing,” Daniels said.
This explains Daniels’ love for the base principles of Buddhism. While he does not consider himself Buddhist, he has adapted some of the principles of detachment and balance into his life after learning about them in a high school class.
The expansion of his mind is a part of the greater picture of Daniels’ perseverance and obsession with fully completing whatever it is he sets his mind to.
“For his whole life, whatever he was into he would just dive into it, live it, breathe it, own it and then move onto the next thing,” said his mother, Alison. “He needs to master whatever it is he is into.”
After completing a perfect 2017 season at Mater Dei, convincingly defeating St. John Bosco in the state championship game and winning a slew of awards, there wasn’t much left for Daniels to achieve at the high school level. It was time to “move onto the next thing.” Steve said that Daniels would likely have not left high school if there was unfinished business.
“He wanted so desperately to be a part of the turnaround at Mater Dei. Not that it’s not a great program, [it] just hasn’t won a championship since 1999,” Steve said. “So had [Mater Dei] not won, he might have said, ‘Dad, I don’t care how ready I am. We have to finish what we started.’”
With two games remaining in the 2018 regular season, Daniels looks to begin that process in college: Reconciling with what has been a far below average season at USC and finishing what he has started in the coming years.
“You’re going to lose some. You’re going to win some,” Daniels said “It’s just about learning and coming back from it.”