Daniels on pace to set a new standard
The best way to convey why JT Daniels has garnered more hype than any freshman in recent USC history is to explain a phone call I had with Jordan Palmer in mid-April.
We were on the line for a story that ran earlier this month at The Ringer, in which I profiled Daniels in the wake of his reclassification. Palmer, who is Carson Palmer’s younger brother, is one of several private coaches who has worked with Daniels over the years, and likely the most prominent of the bunch. Among his clients: Deshaun Watson, Blake Bortles, Josh Allen and Sam Darnold, to name four recent first-round quarterbacks. Palmer, then, knows the position. More importantly, he knows Daniels, by virtue of the two working together ever since Daniels was a seventh grader. He has the necessary perspective to contextualize exactly how good JT Daniels is.
We’d barely been on the phone for 30 seconds before Palmer made his position clear: He didn’t want to be Daniels’ hype man. Then, over the next 20 minutes, he proceeded to tell me the following:
-Daniels is “significantly” more advanced after three years of high school than Darnold was after four.
-In fact, Daniels is more advanced at his age than any quarterback Palmer had ever seen.
-Daniels, mostly by virtue of his smarts and work ethic, has the highest ceiling of any quarterback he’s been around – and, bear in mind, Palmer has attended every single Elite Eleven that’s been held.
-Daniels will one day become “the new standard” on the mental side of the quarterback position.
Those four statements, on face value, scan as a ton of hype. Depending on your perspective, they might even border on ludicrous. But I believe Palmer was being genuine when he communicated his desire not to oversell JT Daniels and that, to him, none of this is an exaggeration. There’s no counterfeiting the genuine article.
Know this: Nothing JT Daniels does on the field will scan as physically exemplary. He does not have Darnold’s agility within the pocket or Carson Palmer’s arm or Matt Leinart’s frame. His closest physical resemblance among recent USC quarterbacks is probably Cody Kessler. And yet, the sum total of what he does vastly exceeds the individual parts.
Most of this is attributable to his mind, something I’ve heard plenty of anecdotes about. By now, it’s common knowledge that Daniels was calling his own plays at Mater Dei since he was a sophomore. What isn’t is the reason why Mater Dei trusted him to do so. According to his father, Steve, earlier that spring, Palmer had assigned JT the task of mapping out every single blitz he saw the Monarchs’ defense run to the best of his ability, a daunting task for any high schooler – much less a kid who had just finished his freshman year.
Yet Daniels diagnosed so many of them that on, the first defensive install day, he completed 15 of his first 16 passes against those blitzes. When practice was over, he hopped in the car and told his father,“I know who's going where and I'm actually waiting for that guy to do his assignment so I can complete my pass.”
You can see, then, how Daniels supposedly digested USC’s playbook in a matter of days. Or how, according to Palmer, Daniels almost always grasps the entirety of a new concept by the time they reunite for their next session together.
“As opposed to, I've trained my brother as a client and there's certain physical things, mental things that may take 2, 5, 10 sessions together,” Palmer says of Carson.
Not to put too fine a point on things, but normal teenagers cannot do all of this. Even exceptional teenagers can’t. This is the domain of prodigious football minds, which is why the detractors who like to remind everyone that Daniels is technically reclassifying into his correct grade level – he was held back in eighth grade, largely to gain weight before matriculating into the Trinity League – are missing the point. This sort of football acuity would be impressive at 16 or 18 or 21.
None of this is to say that Daniels isn’t a serious athlete. It only takes a cursory view of both his sophomore and junior year highlights to catch a glimpse of how fast he’s become in the last 18 months. Fellow true freshman Chase Williams told me about one 7-on-7 tournament when they competed on the same team, with a twist – JT decided to play receiver, not quarterback. The result?
“He completely Mossed somebody,” Williams says, invoking today’s preferred term for embarrassing a defensive back with a highlight catch, the way Randy Moss did for so many years. “Not a bad corner, but an elite corner. And he Mosses somebody.”
Then there was the time in high school when Daniels saw Chase McGrath practicing field goals. JT decided to attempt one himself, despite being so green that McGrath had to provide a tutorial for the correct way to step up to take the kick. Daniels then lined up a 50-yarder, mimicked what McGrath taught him and…
"Right down the middle," McGrath says. "It was crazy... He's one of the most athletic kids I probably know."
None of this makes Daniels more special than, say, Darnold. Just different. It’s less obvious but more explainable, as opposed to Darnold’s propensity to conjure up plays that tickled the imagination of even the most jaded football observers. It was jazz. Daniels is the polished concert pianist, one who understands and attends to the position’s every nuance, who makes the technically difficult seem mundane.
"He wants to be a master of his craft," Clay Helton told me in April.
Do not expect JT Daniels to be Sam Darnold’s replacement, in other words, because JT Daniels is something else entirely. But when it’s all said and done, do not be surprised if he’s every bit as impactful. That’s not hype. That’s just reality.