Injury, Kedon Slovis' emergence likely means the end to Daniels' Trojans tenure
So often in sports, circumstances play as much of a role in determining an athlete's direction as does talent or work ethic. The case of JT Daniels is one such instance.
Daniels began his college career in the long shadow of predecessor Sam Darnold, the third overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft and the quarterback responsible for leading the USC Trojans to their first Rose Bowl win and Pac-12 championship in almost a decade each. Upon winning the competition to be Darnold's successor in 2018, Daniels became the first true freshman starting quarterback at USC since Matt Barkley in 2009, and just the program's second ever — leaving the newcomer to be compared to two pretty impressive former Trojans before he ever even took his first snap.
If Daniels' tenure at USC is finished — and that feels like a much more likely possibility now than at the 2019 season's conclusion, with Daniels entering the NCAA transfer portal on April 16 — his lone season as starter goes down as historic for the wrong reasons.
The Trojans limped to a 5-7 finish, marking just the second time in two decades USC failed to either finish above .500 or reach a bowl game.
USC's offense struggled through anemic stretches in 2018. The Trojans ranked No. 91 in the nation at 26.1 points per game, a figure most harshly underscored in a disastrous November.
USC dropped its final three games down the stretch, scoring a combined 58 points against Cal, UCLA and Notre Dame. The top output of these games, 27 points at UCLA, offered perhaps the most accurate reflection of the Trojans' troubles.
After a hot start, rolling up 24 points in the first quarter-and-change, USC scratched out one field goal over the game's last 35-plus minutes. A loss to a UCLA team that had sputtered to a historically woeful start left head coach Clay Helton answering questions about his job security — and left Daniels addressing the situation.
In the immediate aftermath, Daniels said outside the Rose Bowl visitor's locker room: "Nobody wants to see him go. Everybody who knows him, loves him. If you blame Clay Helton for that loss, then you have no idea what football is. Players aren't executing."
His was a difficult spot for a freshman to be in. Just a few years prior, crosstown rival UCLA barred media contact with then-freshman Josh Rosen altogether until the regular-season finale. Now, here was Daniels, publicly taking up for his coach after an especially difficult loss.
But while USC retained Helton, it was evident other changes were necessary. Daniels may have pinned the scoring anemia on player execution, but it was evident throughout the campaign that the scheme just failed to click. The most significant change came with the hire of Graham Harrell as offensive coordinator (after the NFL intervened on Kliff Kingsbury's initial hire).
The adoption of a new scheme reinvigorated USC offensively, which finished 2019 sixth in the nation in passing offense, third in the Pac-12 in scoring offense, and went into the final week of the regular season in the hunt for a conference championship game berth.
Year 2 of Harrell's prolific passing attack promises even more offense, and possible front-running status in the Pac-12 South, with USC returning a bevy of weapons.
"It's Wide Receiver U. here," Tyler Vaughns said last November, following a rout of UCLA that followed a much different tenor than the year prior. Four different pass catchers hauled in more than 100 yards as the Trojans rolled up 52 points; three of those four return in 2020 with Vaughns spurning the NFL draft with Drake London and Daniels' former Mater Dei High School teammate, Amon-Ra St. Brown, also in the mix.
Of course, the UCLA game was the masterpiece of Kedon Slovis' outstanding freshman season.
Daniels' replacement emerged as an unlikely star of the 2019 season, gaining traction as a prospective 2020 Heisman candidate after he flourished in the circumstances that sidelined Daniels.
A season-ending knee injury Week 1 against Fresno State aborted Daniels' prospects of quarterbacking Harrell's pass-happy scheme.
If Daniels' lone half running the system was any indication, however, he could have shined in a manner similar to Slovis, who finished 2019 with 3,502 passing yards and 30 touchdowns on 282 completions.
That one half of football isn't the only indication Daniels would have flourished last season, either.
"We always have confidence in our quarterback, no matter who's there. Just knowing what we did in fall camp, [the potential] showed," Vaughns said in November.
And the No. 1 coming out of fall camp was Daniels.
The change in offensive coordinator last offseason begat a competition for the starting job that whittled down to Daniels and Slovis. Another competition this offseason was at least a possibility — with emphasis on was.
USC expected JT Daniels would stick around as a high-quality backup to Kedon Slovis this season, then leave as a grad transfer before next. But COVID-19 and the NCAA’s possible one-time transfer exception have made an early exit — and immediate eligibility — possible.— Ryan Kartje (@Ryan_Kartje) April 16, 2020
The outbreak of COVID-19 and global response could have an immeasurable impact on the landscape of college football, all the way down to individual positional battles. Fall camp is not a givien, and spring workouts were just getting started when USC closed.
A Daniels exit from USC isn't a given, either. He could return to USC, joining one of the talented playmakers in next season's receiving corps, fellow Mater Dei product Bru McCoy, whose flirtation with departure went as far as him committing to Texas.
But should Daniels' days as a Trojan be at their conclusion, he'll leave having never had the right circumstances to truly show his ability.
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.