JT Daniels aligned the Georgia Bulldogs into victory formation. As he took the final snap of his first start between the historic hedges of Sanford Stadium, the student section began to chant the name of the school’s new quarterback.
In those precious seconds, it was all worth it for Daniels — the USC dream lost to a season-ending knee injury, the emergence of Kedon Slovis, the transfer cross-country to a Southeastern Conference behemoth and the long wait of the last two months to show what he can do with a football in his right hand and a little time to deliver it.
Daniels completed 27 of 35 passes for 401 yards and four touchdowns, and, given how tight the game was and how much the Bulldogs uncharacteristically struggled to run the ball, it was hard to think Georgia would have pulled off its 31-24 win over Mississippi State with anybody else under center.
Standing among the 20,000 fans who attended the game at 22% capacity because of pandemic regulations, Steve Daniels listened to those students serenading his son and lost it.
“That brought tears,” Steve said.
It was that kind of night in Athens, Ga., where even the unnaturally neutral JT allowed himself to feel something.
“This is the first time I’ve taken a snap since Aug. 31, 2019, in a whole other part of the country,” JT told reporters postgame. “In terms of emotions, at the end on the victory formation, it started sinking in a little bit. It really hasn’t [sunk in] yet, that I got to play football again. I really just felt a lot of gratitude to my family, my teammates, the coaching staff, for everyone helping me get back on my feet.”
Daniels, an Irvine native and former five-star recruit at Santa Ana Mater Dei High, was supposed to star in Los Angeles with the Trojans. He won the starting job as a freshman in 2018, but USC stumbled to a 5-7 record — the school’s first losing season since 2000. He won the job again entering last season and appeared poised to put up big numbers in new offensive coordinator Graham Harrell’s “Air Raid” offense but tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in the opener. Slovis took over and became USC’s present and future, and it turned out that JT would have to leave L.A. for his story to take a Hollywood turn.
“Perseverance pays off for sure,” Steve said. “This is what life’s all about. The rocket ship that got him through high school was just rainbows and pixie dust. He worked his butt off, but it all just kind of went his way. Then college came and adversity struck, and he has pretty much been there until this past week.”
In May, as he rehabilitated his knee and pondered a 2020 season possibly postponed by the pandemic, Daniels announced he was transferring to Georgia for a fresh start. The decision was surprising only because he was walking away from a competition with Slovis and into one of the most packed quarterback rooms in the country.
The Bulldogs had just gotten the commitment of Wake Forest graduate transfer Jamie Newman, who immediately became the assumed leader to replace the departed Jake Fromm. They also had freshmen D’Wan Mathis and Carson Beck and former walk-on Stetson Bennett IV. Plus, five-star quarterback Brock Vandagriff was committed for the class of 2021.
When Daniels committed to Georgia, there was a chance the NCAA could deny his waiver request for immediate eligibility, forcing him to sit a year.
“The first tattoo is a lion for the [Mater Dei] Monarchs. Then you’ve got the Trojan. And when he gets a second to breathe, there’s going to be a Bulldog.”
Steve Daniels on the tattoos his son, JT Daniels, has on his right leg
So why the Bulldogs? Daniels said Saturday, in his first interview with Georgia reporters, that he had been to the South only once — for the Manning Passing Academy in New Orleans — but loved it. He felt Georgia coach Kirby Smart would do whatever it takes to win, and he hit it off with Todd Monken, Georgia’s new offensive coordinator who was hired to bring a more explosive offense to Athens. The hope was that Monken could start a cultural shift similar to when Louisiana State paired Joe Burrow with passing game coordinator Joe Brady and went on an undefeated run to the 2019 national championship.
In July, the NCAA cleared Daniels to play this season. Yet plenty of hurdles remained. He would have to beat out Newman in 2020 and then Vandagriff in 2021. But in early September, Newman shocked everyone by opting out of the season to prepare for the NFL draft, and the assumption was that Daniels, then a year removed from his injury, would be healthy enough to go win the competition.
Smart keeps information tight, so few knew Daniels’ status for the opener at Arkansas on Sept. 26. Mathis got the start, struggled out of the gate, and Bennett led the Bulldogs to a win.
Despite suiting up, Daniels had not been cleared to play by team doctors. Bennett had played well, so Smart stuck with him, and the Bulldogs roughed up rivals Auburn and Tennessee. Daniels continued to work with the scout team as Bennett prepared for a prime-time showdown at Alabama.
In Tuscaloosa, the Crimson Tide rolled over Georgia, 41-24. The next week, there was still no sign of Daniels as the offense put up just two touchdowns in an ugly 14-3 win over Kentucky. Bennett had two passes intercepted against the Wildcats, but he was pegged as the starter again the next week against Florida in a game that would likely decide the winner of the SEC East Division — and which team remained alive for a national title. Florida beat Georgia 44-28, as Daniels again sat for four quarters.
Smart and the Georgia medical staff had been conservative with Daniels, who admitted that he did not have his full mobility early in the season. A postponement of the Nov. 14 Missouri game because of COVID-19 concerns gave the Bulldogs a chance for a reset. Smart told Daniels the Monday before Mississippi State that he was going to start.
“Wouldn’t you rather, with your 20-year-old son, have a coach that is going to be a little more on the cautious side than rushing you out there?” Steve Daniels said.
Georgia fans, of course, may not see it that way, with the team outside the playoff picture. Daniels, who torched Mississippi State’s defense over the top with bomb after bomb, is now a walking “What if?”
Entering Saturday’s game at South Carolina as the SEC co-offensive player of the week, Daniels has the potential of three to four more games to stake his claim as the favorite to start next season.
At this point, Steve Daniels believes JT is prepared for anything. USC came with its disappointments, but the family still relishes the lifelong friendships fostered by two years with the Trojans.
JT has no plans to remove the giant tattoo of a Trojan he had inked on his lower right leg before his freshman year.
“That right leg is going to be the story of his football life,” Steve said. “The first tattoo is a lion for the [Mater Dei] Monarchs. Then you’ve got the Trojan. And when he gets a second to breathe, there’s going to be a Bulldog.”