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The Next Great USC QB Shouldn’t Even Be in College

JT Daniels is currently battling to replace Sam Darnold as the Trojans’ starter. He should still be in high school math class. After reclassifying to begin his college career a year early, though, the five-star prodigy is attempting not only to replace a legend, but to fend off failure so that he can become one himself.  

Is Sam Darnold going to save the Jets? Who knows? Will he save … the world? It’s still too early to tell. But to all of the Jets fans out there who hope to protect themselves from the continued emotional horror that is rooting for whichever unfortunate individual has been shackled with the burden of quarterbacking this godforsaken franchise, we say: Life is too short. Darnold is audibling at practice! He’s throwing three touchdowns on a single preseason drive! His jawline could clog the Hudson River! So, rather than tempering the hysteria emanating from the Garden State, we’re diving right in. Welcome to Darnold Day!

If, someday, JT Daniels cements himself in USC Trojans lore, the story of how he became the school’s latest quarterback triumph will begin with him observing spring practice on a sun-dappled field this March, three months before he enrolled at the university and nearly six months before his first college football season.

He watched as an anxious offseason in Troy unfolded after Sam Darnold’s departure for the NFL. Darnold had been a rejuvenator, a player who had done more in two years to elevate the Trojans back to their pre-sanctions peak than anyone else had done in the previous five seasons. Replacing a quarterback of Darnold’s ilk is the most daunting on-field task a college football team can face, yet it’s also one that USC has somehow made routine. Since 2000, every quarterback who started a majority of the team’s games in a given season wound up getting drafted at the end of his Trojans career. All but one went on to start an NFL game. The chain is unbroken and quite possibly unprecedented, and the last two decades have made it appear as though it could be unending. There always seems to be another guy at USC.

For the first time in years, though, spring practice raised the concern that maybe that chain would finally break. For a month and a half, onlookers winced as redshirt sophomore Matt Fink and redshirt freshman Jack Sears wilted at the controls of the Trojans offense. Both quarterbacks were highly touted recruits; neither could dependably move the ball, and nearly every session featured a few too many passes sailing above an intended receiver’s head or into the arms of eager defenders.

It wasn’t long before the bulk of fans and media shifted their focus from the quarterbacks out on the field to the one who wasn’t. Twice a week, Daniels, the premier high school quarterback west of the Mississippi and the reigning Gatorade National Player of the Year in football, made the trip from Santa Ana’s Mater Dei High School to USC’s campus to observe practice. He tried his best to remain unassuming, usually peering over coaches a few yards behind the action in either a black USC hoodie, black USC cap, or both. But the more Fink and Sears struggled, the more Daniels loomed over the proceedings. Fans applauded one Saturday when he arrived to watch a scrimmage. Media members regularly worked his name into press scrums. Some Trojans players even sought scouting reports from Daniels’s former high school teammates currently on USC’s roster.

It was an overwhelming amount of attention paid to an unenrolled recruit, and it had to do with more than his consensus five-star ranking. After originally committing to USC in July 2017 as part of its 2019 recruiting class, Daniels announced in December his intention to skip his senior year of high school and enroll at USC in June 2018. This happened about two weeks before Darnold declared for the NFL draft, something Daniels insists he didn’t know was coming and didn’t influence his decision. “I had to go under the assumption that [Darnold] was staying or that I wasn’t going to play at all,” Daniels says. “It’s still worth it. I’d definitely get better as a player.”

Reclassifying required Daniels to pass 10 classes—chemistry, history, government, economics, algebra 2/trigonometry, two English classes, and three religion courses—in the back half of his junior year, in addition to fulfilling the school’s mandatory community service hour requirement for all students. “A senior year in a semester,” as his father, Steve, puts it.

It also generated national headlines, which hardly surprised Daniels. “When Marvin Bagley did it, it was fucking huge,” he says, referencing the one-and-done Duke basketball star who went through the same reclassification process last year. Still, he’s grown weary of fielding questions about something he views as relatively inconsequential.

“It’s not that big a deal,” Daniels says. “I’m old enough, I’m definitely good enough, I’m ready to play college football. It’s that simple.” What happens next won’t be. Only two college football players, former USC quarterback John David Booty and current South Carolina quarterback Jake Bentley, are believed to have attempted what Daniels is now trying to do: go directly from playing as a high school junior to starting as a college freshman. Neither Booty nor Bentley managed that.

Yet, increasingly, the masses seem to take it as fait accompli that Daniels will be the Trojans’ starting quarterback this fall. Some of that stems from his unblemished potential; he hasn’t yet disappointed anyone around USC, which of course makes it easier to imagine that he won’t.

He hasn’t disappointed much elsewhere, either. He’s been precocious from the very beginning, a prodigy with a seemingly paranormal understanding of how the game is played. Something will give this month: USC’s hopes of making a third consecutive New Year’s Six bowl game may hinge on an 18-year-old QB who’s never before failed in a meaningful way—and who’s now trying to achieve the unprecedented.

At first blush, Daniels is an unlikely protagonist—barely north of 6 feet, with no eye-popping tools. His most notable physical trait is his legs, which are contoured like a running back’s and tailor-made for the high gym shorts he loves to wear during workouts, mostly to incite ribbing from his buddies. There is nothing obvious about him, which only enhances the idea of him—he is a teenager who borders on a tall tale. Every five-star prospect has a distinguished résumé; Daniels practically has a mythology.

One of the earliest entries in that canon came when Daniels was just 6 years old. His father, Steve, loved playing Madden on the family’s Xbox, and JT wanted to be his coach. So father would fire up the console and son would put on a headset to coordinate the offense, refusing to start the game until he looked the part. Steve remembers it all as child’s play, at least until the day when JT abruptly barked at him to put the receivers in motion pre-snap so JT could ascertain whether the defense was sitting in man coverage.

By eighth grade, Daniels had already carved out a reputation as a star quarterback on the Pop Warner circuit, one gifted enough to work with not one but two private coaches who trained NFL players. The summer after Daniels graduated middle school, one of those coaches, Scot Prohaska, brought Daniels with him one morning when his professional skill-position clients needed an extra arm to throw passes. A multiyear NFL starting quarterback was throwing that day, too. When the session was over, Prohaska surveyed the receivers to see how Daniels had comported himself. “Every guy to a T said, ‘Hey, bring that kid back, we like his ball better,’” Prohaska recalls.

Daniels had dreamed of quarterbacking Mater Dei since the fifth grade, and had been on campus so often ingesting schematic kernels that his middle school years played like a dress rehearsal for this offseason. Despite routinely popping up at Monarchs practice before his tenure began, he broke camp in his first season as the varsity team’s second-string quarterback, albeit the only freshman on its roster. Then, early in the second game, the starter broke his wrist. Daniels came off the bench cold. His second pass was intercepted.

Prohaska, who also works as Mater Dei’s director of sports performance, winced on the sideline. He caught his protégé’s eye as Daniels made his way back to the bench, bracing himself to see frustration or anger or dejection. What he got was a wink and a smile.

“Got that out of the way,” Prohaska recalls the then-15-year-old cracking. “That won’t happen again.” It would be six weeks before Daniels threw another pick.

He never surrendered the job back to the incumbent, and one year later, his football acumen was sharp enough that Mater Dei’s coaches handed the sophomore full control over the offensive play-calling. It took Matt Barkley, another decorated Mater Dei and USC product, until his senior year with the Monarchs to earn the same privilege. Daniels responded by throwing 67 touchdowns against six interceptions in arguably the most talent-saturated conference in the country. Scholarship offers rained down, but he was unfazed. Instead of celebrating the offers, he stewed over his mobility, the one blemish in his game. “You’re just slow as shit,” he scolded himself, and so he and Prohaska spent the offseason figuring out how to speed him up. They worked on making Daniels’s frame leaner and reengineering his stride, first elongating it and then committing the new steps to muscle memory by having Daniels run routes. He emerged fast enough to rip off 50-yard scrambles and bouncy enough to hurdle defenders in full stride.

“He went from like a C-minus to an A,” Greg Biggins, a national recruiting analyst for 247Sports who has covered West Coast recruits for more than two decades, says of Daniels’s mobility. “I haven’t seen anything like it.” Daniels’s newfound ability as a runner sparked a season even better than his last, culminating in Daniels becoming the first junior to win the Gatorade award—the high school Heisman—in a decade.

Daniels had randomly selected jersey no. 18 at the start of his Mater Dei career, but the figure gradually began to seem prophetic. His Pop Warner team, the Irvine Chargers, hadn’t won a championship in 18 years until Daniels ended that drought in seventh grade. His junior season marked the 18th year since Mater Dei had won a sectional championship, but Daniels saw to that, too, leading the Monarchs to a state title and a national championship for good measure. Before that playoff run began, Daniels’s future teammate at USC, center Justin Dedich, chatted up friends at Vista Murrieta, Mater Dei’s first-round opponent. Dedich recalls them speaking about playing against Daniels like someone had asked them to slay a dragon. “They were so scared,” Dedich chuckles.

Daniels finds most of the narrative about his prowess to be absurd. He’s aware of the way people lionize his accomplishments, calling it “a hype train,” and refuses to lend credence to any sort of mystical explanation. He got faster because he ran more. He took 10 classes because he manages his time well. His vaunted game sense is drilled in, not innate. “I’m no genius,” he says, flatly. “I don’t ponder this shit just all the time in my free time and come up with profound discoveries. I learn from everybody else around me. ... If you understand [something] and learn it and practice it enough, there should be no problem doing that in a game for anybody.”

Those who know him best, then, have a second set of Daniels stories, ones about a boy with an almost fanatical desire to better himself. Steve Daniels remembers the time when a family friend came to visit and stopped by JT’s room to say hello. He opened the door to find a 5-year-old JT midway through a set of push-ups.

“Can’t talk, Jeff,” Steve recalls JT telling the man. “I’m doing my workout.”

Teammates at Mater Dei marveled at the exhausting amount of hours he spent in film study, cycling through old game tapes so often that he could reconstruct entire sequences on command like a football party trick, down to an eerie amount of detail.

“You could ask him, out of nowhere, ‘Hey, what’s this play?’ from a game prior … and he would go down the board of everybody’s responsibility,” says Bru McCoy, a five-star athlete in the class of 2019 and Daniels’s best friend since seventh grade. “He watched so much film that he knew the plays by heart in order, by number, just literally from going through constantly, clicking it through and playing it over and over.”

His official visit to USC came in early January, nearly six months after he’d committed and one month since he’d decided to reclassify. He was part of an elite group of recruits on campus that weekend, and the Trojans coaching staff compiled a full itinerary to impress them. Daniels was on a different schedule. As the rest of the prospects took in the sights, he camped out in the film room with the coaches all afternoon. When he got hungry, he walked to snag takeout from Wahlburgers so he could spend his meal time cramming in even more plays ahead of his early enrollment. “Just football the whole time,” says USC offensive coordinator Tee Martin. “I’ve never seen that before.”

Moments like that are why it’s so tempting to presume that Daniels will transcend the boundaries of history and inexperience to start this fall. His career to date is a monument to conviction.

“I don’t think he’s no. 1 in any physical category that I’ve seen,” says Jordan Palmer, the quarterback guru who trains Daniels and counts Darnold, Deshaun Watson, Blake Bortles, and Josh Allen among his other clients. “He certainly doesn’t have the best arm I’ve ever seen. … What he has is the most relentless pursuit of perfection of anybody I’ve seen at this young age. And he’s physically talented enough to max that to have it be probably the highest ceiling I’ve ever seen.”

The concept of reclassification began as a joke, after Mater Dei defeated Las Vegas’s Bishop Gorman High School in early September 2017 in a battle of the nation’s two top-ranked high school teams. Despite missing his best receiver, fellow future USC signee Amon-Ra St. Brown, Daniels threw for 313 yards and a pair of touchdowns. It was Gorman’s first loss in nearly four years.

After the game, Biggins, who has known Daniels since the QB was in the eighth grade, approached him with an icebreaker. “I said, ‘Dude, JT, you should skip your senior year and go to USC right now. You could start for them next year,’” Biggins recalls, making sure the quarterback could hear the humor in his tone. “We were talking and he kind of laughed it off. And [then] he asked, ‘Can you even do that?’”

After conferring with academic personnel at both Mater Dei and USC, as well USC’s compliance staff, Daniels realized he could. After discussing the issue with his parents, he began to think he should. He was outgrowing his surroundings a bit more each game and he could feel stagnation approaching on the field. Many of his close friends were a year ahead of him academically, too, a byproduct of Daniels’s family having him repeat eighth grade largely to help him gain weight before playing high school football. Reclassifying would allow him to graduate with them.

He’d mostly made up his mind when he dialed Prohaska’s number. After four years of working together, their relationship transcends trainer and client. These days, Prohaska trains Daniels’s mind as much as his body. He’s assigned Daniels reading for years, beginning with Jeffrey Marx’s Season of Life, a book about reinterpreting masculinity. Now, Daniels is just as apt to provide recommendations in return. About once a week, they’ll hop on the phone for as long as 90 minutes at a time to discuss Daniels’s evolving views on anything from neuroscience to philosophy to religion.

Before Daniels could make his case for the early jump, Prohaska preempted him.

“Before we talk about what decision you’re going to make and calculate all the good and bad of each option, I want you to admit something to yourself,” Prohaska says he told Daniels. “You’re a very smart kid and you’ve been around smart people … but you have no wisdom yet. You are not old enough and have not lived enough to have wisdom.”

Make no mistake: The adults in Daniels’s life are thrilled with the person he’s becoming. Behind the bluntness, bravado, and considerable blue streak is an empathy that belies Daniels’s age. “My focus was more on ‘How do I cultivate good relationships and really be there for other people and care about other people more than I care about how successful I’m going to be,’” Daniels says. His greatest point of pride from last offseason wasn’t the ticks he shaved off his 40 time, but the curriculum he developed to tutor the team’s younger quarterbacks. He scheduled his own film sessions and held private seminars, eventually getting so immersed in the whole endeavor that, according to Prohaska, Mater Dei’s head coach, Bruce Rollinson, had to lecture him about being more selfish.

Daniels can’t help himself. He’s enamored of human potential, and a considerable chunk of his free time is spent devouring content about how to maximize it. His favorite product is a YouTube series called Impact Theory, in which host Tom Bilyeu mines the life experiences of successful guests for teachable moments. Daniels could envision himself doing something similar one day. “My real purpose on this planet is not just to play football,” he says. “I want to inspire people to find happiness in themselves and find a purpose in themselves, because that’s just not something we do enough as human beings.”

He’s still calibrating his message, but promises that once it’s fine-tuned, he won’t be shy about speaking his mind—about anything. “I don’t care if people take what I say badly,” he says. “I just like to bring thought-provoking things to attention. … If you’re not attacking anyone else’s beliefs or bringing them down, what’s the issue with being outspoken?”

Plenty, as far as the NFL is concerned. Only a few months ago, Daniels watched UCLA’s Josh Rosen, another blunt quarterback from Southern California, slip to 10th in the draft in part due to the way some in the league parsed his candor. Daniels believes a similar fate would be a worthy trade-off if he’s staying true to himself. “The thought of losing out on money doesn’t concern me in the slightest,” he says. “I don’t need a fucking mansion and a Bentley.”

That’s the kind of declaration that straddles the line between authentic to the man Daniels is becoming and something a boy says when he’s 18 and believes himself invincible. It’s also the sort of bluntness that could get him into trouble if it were channeled at the wrong time, in the wrong room, on the wrong subject.

Prohaska doesn’t want Daniels to face a storm, but does wonder whether his pupil would benefit from failing in some tangible way and learning before the stakes become too high to recover from a misstep. It’s a frequent subject of their more recent conversations, and perhaps the toughest. Daniels perceives failure the way an average person would assess winning the lottery: He understands it in the abstract, but can’t truly grasp the implications. “Logically, I can see that of course it’s going to happen, but I don’t think it will affect me, Scot,” JT told him recently.

“That’s the wisdom part I talk about, right?” Prohaska says now. He often wonders what might happen if Daniels does, in fact, continue to defy all reasonable expectations and postpone failure indefinitely. What if it finally arrives in the NFL, when there’s nowhere to hide from the panoptic scrutiny that comes with being a professional athlete? What if it isn’t until after that, in his post-football life? Will his well-considered beliefs endure?

Prohaska, like so many others, doesn’t anticipate the first big setback coming on the field at USC. But if it does, he says, “My question is, ‘Let’s see how he handles that.’ Where my next [challenge] is going to be with him is mentally, emotionally, if that failure lasts a little bit longer than expected, if it’s a little bigger than he expected. What’s going to happen, is my big question. What are we going to be dealing with then? I don’t know. I’ve never had to deal with it [with him].”

Fifteen years ago, John David Booty was JT Daniels.

It was 2003, and Pete Carroll’s team was in transition. Carson Palmer, the school’s first Heisman-winning quarterback, was about to be selected first overall by the Bengals in that year’s NFL draft, and Carroll needed to suss out a replacement. There were two highly touted arms already on campus, but his most alluring option was Booty, a small-school quarterback from Shreveport, Louisiana, whom Biggins at the time regarded as the best high school quarterback he’d ever seen.

No high school quarterback had ever skipped his senior year to jump right to college ball, but every now and again, John David and his father, Johnny, would bandy about the notion. John David’s high school, Evangel Christian, ran K through 12, and Booty had racked up enough extra credits over the years to try to graduate early, if he so chose. Still, John David says it never would have happened had Johnny, who was head of school and quarterback coach at the school, not lost his job in the spring of John David’s junior year. Once he did, John David had little incentive to stick around. He was already committed to USC, with the intent of enrolling a semester early. After some digging, he realized he only needed to tack on one summer class to skip the full year.

That spring, he hopped on a plane to Los Angeles to catch a glimpse of practice, where he watched the two incumbents, Matt Leinart and Matt Cassel, duke it out to mostly uninspiring results. He returned to Louisiana with one thought in his mind.

“I was like, ‘Man, I can go in and start,’” Booty says.

He was wrong. Booty came out firing in fall camp but tweaked his back midway through. He watched as Leinart won the job and etched his name in college football history, piloting the Trojans to two national championships (one since vacated by the NCAA) and winning a Heisman. Booty would wait three years for his chance to start. By any measure, he enjoyed a fine career: two Rose Bowl wins, an all-conference nod, and a fifth-round NFL draft selection by the Vikings. But it never matched the world’s expectations, nor his own. Leinart became a College Football Hall of Famer. Cassel, despite never starting a game at USC, has carved out a 13-year-and-counting NFL career. Booty sells real estate in Orange County.

Looking back, Booty sees the flaw in his plan. “Would I have been served better to have a senior year?” he asks. “Probably so, just physically.” Maybe things would have been different if he had waited. Nevertheless, he says, “I don’t regret my decision whatsoever.” There was no way to foresee the consequences of the choice he made so many years ago, just as there’s no way for JT to know them now. Projection isn’t certainty.

Nobody stands to benefit from Daniels’s gambit more than Bryan Ellis, Daniels’s quarterback coach at USC. He watched Daniels internalize concepts with lightning speed, fast enough to make Ellis certain that “he’s further along than any freshman I’ve ever been around” even though Daniels played only three years of high school football. Still, something gnawed at Ellis amid the film marathon official visit and Daniels’s decision to stay on campus to attend both the Thursday and Saturday sessions of spring ball.

“I tell him sometimes to be more of a kid,” Ellis says. “Go enjoy life.”

But in Daniels’s mind, he is. This is his truest self. His mother, Ali, nicknamed him “The Nutty Professor” when he was in elementary school for the way he’d fling himself so deeply into thought that the whole world seemed to recede into white noise around him. Being Big Man on Campus for his senior year would inhibit his passions more than enable them.

“What I dreamed of doing was living on a facility where I can go from film to lift to practice to train, shit like that, all day,” Daniels says. “That’s college. I could not wait for that.”

That might be the most unusual thing about him—not his intellect or endless achievements, but the sheer joy Daniels puts into each task, great and small.

“All these guys love the game … [but] I think this guy has a different level of love for the game and love for all the aspects of the game—the boring stuff, the studying, the learning,” Jordan Palmer says, bemusedly. “He loves this part of it.”

Which is why, to Daniels, missing out on his senior year really is a pittance. He can’t move forward if he’s standing still.

Soon after winning the Gatorade award in December, Daniels had an epiphany.

The trophy was the final piece of a near-perfect season, and the last great milestone of his storied high school career. Daniels had officially achieved everything he’d set out to accomplish, but all he felt was hollow. “This should probably be a lot cooler than it is,” he told himself. “This should be the time of my life. But it feels no different.” He announced his decision to reclassify 11 days later.

In January, he stumbled onto Buddhism through an Impact Theory episode. Daniels is still sorting out its place in his life, but says that much of his worldview “align[s] with” the religion’s tenets, particularly the concept of nonattachment. Exploring Buddhism has taught him to divorce success from arbitrary endpoints. His goal at USC isn’t to win a Heisman or a national championship, although both of those things would be nice. It’s merely to improve every day.

“If your reason why is to get to the NFL or just to be famous … once you start getting that, you’re not going to want to work as hard,” Daniels says. “Once you achieve your goal, what else is there to do? I just love getting better each and every day. If that’s my goal, how can I fall off? Because my goal is never-ending like that. If that’s what I want with football, there’s no reason for me to stop working, because I like the work.” He wants to learn. Any outcome beyond that remains murky. He could dazzle in his first few games like Darnold or create a new benchmark for success like Leinart. He could start four years like Palmer or wait his turn like Booty. He could fail or he could flourish. Unlike the rest of the world, Daniels is the first to acknowledge that all of those possibilities are in play. “There’s no reason for a hype train,” he insists.

But he’s also aware enough to know that the hype isn’t going anywhere.

Sears, in particular, has earned praise from Ellis for his “night and day” improvement from the spring, but Daniels has sizzled, and so thoroughly dominated the team’s first full scrimmage that some media members wondered whether the competition was over before it really began.

Those who have seen Daniels play for years aren’t surprised. Whether it happens directly out of camp or midseason like in his first year at Mater Dei, they envision Daniels as the Trojans’ starting quarterback sometime this year. They, and he, know no other reality.

“If either of [Fink or Sears] falters and JT gets in there, that will be it,” Biggins says. “Once JT gets in there, he’s not going to look back.”

He never has before. Why would he start now?

Mike Piellucci is a writer and editor based in Dallas. He is a former staff writer at Vice Sports, and his freelance work has been featured in Sports Illustrated, Los Angeles Magazine, Bleacher Report, and Deadspin.

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