LOS ANGELES (AP) — Although J.T. Daniels doesn’t know exactly how he’ll react when he exits the Coliseum tunnel on Saturday for his debut as Southern California’s starting quarterback, the 18-year-old freshman isn’t terribly concerned.
“Just going to breathe and stay calm,” Daniels said Tuesday night. “Get used to it. Get in the flow a little bit. I don’t think it will be that big of a deal.”
Daniels’ coaches and teammates already feel the Trojans are in good hands.
In their season opener against UNLV, Daniels will become the 15th-ranked Trojans’ first true freshman starting quarterback since 2009. The sight of 80,000 fans in the stands at the venerable arena has intimidated plenty of teenagers over the years, but Daniels has been preparing for this moment since well before he graduated from high school a full year early last spring to enter the competition for the Trojans’ starting job.
“I mean, college atmosphere is obviously a lot bigger than high school,” Daniels said in his first interviews since enrolling at USC. “But playing at a competitive high school and just playing football all my life, at the end of the day, football is still football. It’s still the same sport. Still doing the same things, just at a different level and in a different stadium.”
Daniels had just wrapped up his first practice since winning a three-way derby to become the successor to Sam Darnold. He reflected briefly on his journey over the past six months, from leaving Mater Dei High School early to grabbing one of the nation’s highest-profile quarterback jobs with exceptional maturity and strong play throughout fall camp.
“I did start to develop a certain level of comfort,” Daniels said. “Just going from the first couple of days and (thinking), ‘Wow, this is a whole new sport,’ to as camp went on, asking questions with the coaches, and it starts to slow down a little bit. You start to get used to it.”
Daniels appeared to have an edge in arm strength over fellow contenders Matt Fink and Jack Sears, but his coaches were more interested in the mental proficiency of his game. Coach Clay Helton said he picked Daniels largely because of his commanding performances in camp scrimmages and mock games, noting the freshman’s preternatural ability to make adjustments and smart decisions.
“The scrimmages, the live two-minute drills where the ball had to move and it wasn’t scripted, that’s where we thought J.T. shined,” Helton said.
USC quarterbacks coach Bryan Ellis echoed Helton’s praise, indicating that Daniels’ maturity made the decision relatively easy.
“The playmaking ability that was there, and the calmness, it was uncanny for an 18-year-old,” Ellis said. “I don’t think he’ll have the big eyes. I don’t think he’ll have the starry eyes. If he’s feeling good, we’ll roll with the whole game plan. If not, we’ll dial some things back, we’ll get him into a rhythm and we’ll play our game. … His mind is so far advanced from any 18-year-old I’ve ever seen. For him not to be spinning when he comes out of Day 8 of the install (of the USC offense) is impressive.”
Matt Barkley started 12 games at USC as a true freshman in 2009, eventually completing a four-year tenure as the Trojans’ starter. Daniels and Barkley, now a well-traveled NFL backup, have developed a steady friendship in recent years, with Barkley giving advice and direction to his fellow Orange County native.
“I reach out to him with questions all the time,” Daniels said. “Ask him how he handled things in college, even high school. Matt has just been a really good dude for me.”
Daniels won’t be out there alone, either. He’ll be in charge of USC’s usual plethora of exceptional talent, including a stable of elite tailbacks and a group of receivers including fellow freshman Amon-Ra St. Brown, who also happens to be his former Mater Dei teammate.
Daniels and St. Brown showed off their deep connection throughout camp, and they video-chatted immediately after Daniels got the starting job Sunday. St. Brown is looking forward to catching his first collegiate pass from his high school quarterback.
“It was a competition all through training camp,” St. Brown said. “Matt Fink, Jack Sears, J.T., they were going at it, throwing great balls. I honestly didn’t know, but Coach Helton made a great team decision and chose J.T.”