LOS ANGELES — Depending where one stood, the only indication of the No. 15-ranked USC football team's new starting quarterback amid the mass of humanity was the crown of a white Nike baseball cap.
The center of attention, in the most literal way possible, JT Daniels fielded questions from reporters both local and national. With his bushy, brown hair hanging out of the cap and a physique not yet hardened through years of a college football weight-room regimen, the Mater Dei High School product Daniels looks every bit the youngster who, if he had so chosen, could still be quarterbacking the Santa Ana, California-based prep powerhouse.
Considering he should still be a high school senior, and not the second true freshman starting quarterback in USC history, one could understand an athletic department opting to limit Daniels' media availability. The last true freshman starter in Los Angeles, Josh Rosen of USC's cross-town rival UCLA, did not speak to reporters until the final weeks of his debut season.
But Daniels exuded a confidence in the moments following a 43-21 win over UNLV on Saturday at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum befitting a quarterback who graduated high school early just to compete for a starting spot. It probably helps he had an opportunity to gain his comfort on the field in his first start.
"Oh yeah, there's definitely nerves," Daniels said. "[But] after the first couple snaps, it was like, 'This is still football.' ... I played a lot of football in my life, so the sport's still the same. Higher level, faster game — UNLV, they've got a lot of great players over there — but as the game went on, I got more and more comfortable."
His final stat line does not indicate nerves — 22-of-35 passing for 282 yards with a touchdown — but the progression of Saturday's win proves otherwise.
The Trojans' first four scoring drives all ended in Chase McGrath field goals, the fourth of which cut a second quarter UNLV lead from 14-9 to 14-12. And even as running back Vavae Malepeai punched in the first of his two touchdowns to give the Trojans a lead just before halftime they never relinquished, the true potential of a Daniels-quarterbacked offense did not become evident until the fourth quarter.
On the first play out of the break and clinging to a tenuous, 19-14 advantage, Daniels delivered a beautifully thrown pass to fellow freshman and former Mater Dei teammate, Amon-Ra St. Brown. The 43-yard touchdown on a perfectly run seam route and dime of a throw highlighted game highs of seven receptions and 98 yards for St. Brown.
Expect plenty more Daniels-to-St. Brown scoring connections in the coming years — and for the shared high school alma mater to become an oft-repeated storyline in the vein of Jordan Shipley and Colt McCoy are roommates.
Having a former No. 1 target at USC with him appeared to ease Daniels' transition, but St. Brown was far from his only Week 1 target. The freshman found seven other targets, including Trevon Sidney for 72 yards on three connections.
"For a true freshman, he did a really good job," said UNLV head coach Tony Sanchez. "He didn't make mistakes, [like] not throwing the ball into double-coverage [and] he took the shots he had. Later in the game, JT did a really good job throwing the vertical balls down the field, and that's probably the difference [in the final score]."
Sanchez came into Week 1 wondering aloud in his weekly press conference the same question on many observers' mind: How much responsibility did Trojans head coach Clay Helton and offensive coordinator Tee Martin feel comfortable placing on the youngster in his debut?
As the game developed, the answer became clear with more deep routes. On the drive following the 43-yard touchdown to St. Brown, UNLV lining up with only its safety deep brought in the call to take a shot. The result was a 41-yard hook-up with Sidney.
"Coach Helton made it clear that I'm not here just to hand the ball off and throw the short pass every single time," Daniels said. "Knowing they have that faith in me, and going out and allowing me to take shots, it's really reassuring for me to know. It just takes a couple reps. And after we get a few more in-game reps, we'll be executing those shot plays at a higher rate."
And the learning curve for Daniels gets steeper immediately. USC leaves Los Angeles for the next two weeks with a pair of high-profile contests. Next Saturday, the Trojans face Stanford in a rematch of last season's Pac-12 Championship Game.
The Cardinal drilled San Diego State on Friday, 31-10, sacking Aztecs quarterback Christian Chapman five times. Stanford's consistent pressure contributed to Chapman's 113-yard passing night.
On Week 3, USC travels to meet Texas in the rematch of last season's overtime classic at the Coliseum. The Longhorns limited 2018 first-round NFL draft pick Sam Darnold to a 55 percent completion rate a year ago and intercepted him twice. The Trojans only forced overtime after Darnold set up a game-tying field goal with three passes of 54 yards in under 35 seconds.
Helton's postgame address did not pertain to Daniels exclusively, but the message certainly resonates in how the freshman progresses with so many eyes on him.
"Good game, good win," Helton said. "But we've got a lot to fix before we get to Stanford this week."
(Top photo courtesy of Getty Images)