Georgia Bulldogs quarterback JT Daniels has navigated a unique path in his college career.
A 5-star prospect at Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, Calif., Daniels had all the makings of a quintessential USC quarterback. And, indeed, he initially made the same short move from Orange County to the Southern California campus near downtown Los Angeles that previous Trojans playmakers Todd Marinovich, Matt Leinart and Matt Barkley had made.
Daniels even made the transition early, reclassifying to the 2018 signing class in order to compete for the starting job that another Orange County product, Sam Darnold, had vacated in pursuit of the NFL.
Daniels won the job and showed promise in an otherwise trying season for the Trojans. He went 216-of-363 for 2,672 yards and 14 touchdown passes.
With the hiring of new offensive coordinator Graham Harrell and an increased emphasis on the pass, Daniels looked ready for a star turn as a sophomore. But in the season opener, he sustained a season-ending knee injury after going 25-of-34 for 215 yards with a score.
In 2020, amid the uncertainty of a pandemic, rehabilitating a torn ACL and looking at the emergence of Kedon Slovis, Daniels made the decision to transfer across the country to Georgia. His debut with the Bulldogs was delayed, but by season’s end, as the team’s starter, he was excellent: 80-of-119 for 1,231 yards with 10 touchdowns and just two interceptions.
Perhaps most importantly, Georgia went 4–0 during Daniels’ time as QB1. Building on that season-ending run, and in the second year of offensive coordinator Todd Monken’s system, Daniels is at the forefront of SEC and national championship aspirations in Athens.
The story may have deviated from its original script, but Daniels is on the way to fulfilling his potential. He talked to Athlon Sports during Georgia’s spring practice about the season ahead, the talent-rich corridor of quarterbacks in Southern California and more.
Coming off the strong finish to last season, how do you see the team and yourself progressing into 2021?
There definitely is momentum being built off that. I remember the first walk-through we had, when you look around at the 1s, everybody who played against Cincinnati [in the Peach Bowl] offensively is still here [although WR George Pickens suffered an ACL tear that will likely cost him the 2021 season]. It was really cool to see. It’s something that we can dive in right now and pick up where we left off, as opposed to last year with no spring ball. I wasn’t even here, and fall camp I was trying to learn the new system under Coach Monken. There’s a huge difference in terms of what we’re able to do, and what we’re going to be able to do because of how far ahead we are right now.
In last spring’s transfer process, what was it about Georgia that most attracted you?
Really, it’s just Georgia. There’s a certain standard and certain level that, when you look around college football, Georgia is elite.
Immediately when I got the call from Coach [Kirby] Smart, which was right after I hit the [NCAA transfer] portal, and I talked to Coach Monken, that was probably the first thing that jumped out to me: their [College Football] Playoff-caliber talent, great tradition, great coaching staff.
Then, when I got closer with Coach Monken, doing whatever we could through Zoom, and seeing how he runs offenses and the type of quarterbacks that work best with him, I think it made by far the most sense for Georgia to be the spot for me.
When you’re coming into a new program and coming off the knee injury, how much did that complicate the process, if at all?
It definitely did for timing’s sake. By the time I’m healthy and clear, it’s Week 2 of the season, which is a terrible time to get cleared. By two weeks before the season, you’re trying to finalize your decisions for who your guys are going to be for the season. Any time you come back midseason, it makes it difficult because there’s really no ease-in process. We’re in-season and we’re in trying-to-win mode. It’s difficult trying to come off a year-long injury where you’re just able to come in midseason.
As far as making that transition, in particular going from California to the other side of the country, what was the single most difficult part?
There were no difficulties. I’ve been vocal about loving Georgia, and that hasn’t changed at all. Since I’ve been here, I’ve met great people. The area’s all about football. It fits me very well to be where I am.
SoCal, especially that corridor from San Clemente up into the southern part of L.A. County, produces so many great quarterbacks. What is it about that area that produces so many of you?
There are a lot of great quarterback coaches around there, in terms of private coaches and the high schools, especially the Trinity League. San Clemente High School itself has had great coaches. They’ve done a really good job teaching more complex offenses at a high school level. Younger quarterbacks that go into that learn more about football and are more prepared than others who don’t do that.
And is there any sort of camaraderie for those of you who come out of that corridor, especially those of you who leave the area, like K.J. [Costello, who set an SEC single-game passing yardage record last season at Mississippi State], and he’s an Orange County guy [Rancho Santa Margarita Catholic]. Then there’s D.J. [Uiagalelei] from St. John Bosco [Bellflower, Calif.] up at Clemson. Do you all have a sort of kinship?
There are definitely good friendships I have, and it’s mostly with quarterbacks in general, but it does help when you’re all from the same area. Bryce [Young from Mater Dei] is a good friend of mine at Alabama. D.J., I’m a huge fan of D.J. We’ll see him Week 1. He’s a great person and someone I know. Matt Corral [from Long Beach Poly], too, is a good friend of mine at Ole Miss.
There is a lot of that. We saw each other at camps, played against each other, played with each other. Then we just build a connection with these guys who are all just really good people.
Throughout your career, you’ve had the opportunity to play with some really great wide receivers, like Amon-Ra St. Brown [at USC and in high school]. How much has that helped in your development as a quarterback?
Obviously having talented weapons is huge. I think the biggest thing is the difference between them, and what makes each receiver elite, and learning that has helped me develop in different ways.
Amon-Ra is elite; like, top-of-the-line elite. In my life with him, and this is since seventh grade, he’s never run a wrong route. He’s always in the right place. Anything that you throw to him, he catches. Strongest hands, super consistent, all-around exactly what you look for in a wide receiver.
[Georgia teammate] Jermaine Burton has super, super great body control, great ability in and out of breaks, great ability to sit a [defensive back] down. [USC’s] Tyler Vaughns, Mike Pittman, all these great guys, you learn by watching them play and getting to know them, and really talking to them; seeing who their favorite player is, seeing how they like to model their game, and you learn different ways that I can help make them better by ball placement, and should I make a check at the line, all these things to utilize them in their best position, which in turn makes me a better quarterback.
Is there anybody you’ve looked at who you most try to pattern your game after?
Yeah, absolutely. My all-time favorite is Aaron Rodgers. I’m a huge Tom Brady fan. I like [Patrick] Mahomes a lot, too. Josh Allen, after [last] year especially. To me, I think Aaron Rodgers is the top-of-the-line best you can model your game after. What he can do with the ball is brilliant. He’s a great decision-maker. He’s just accurate from all [places on the field]. Aaron’s definitely my favorite.
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