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Go ahead and believe the hype — USC’s JT Daniels shows he’s ready to start at quarterback

This wasn’t even a real game.

As coach Clay Helton reminded reporters multiple times, this was USC’s first scrimmage, still the team’s eighth day of practice.

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“We’ve got a lot of practices to go,” Helton said.

Only JT Daniels is already there.

Whatever has already been written or said about Daniels, the 18-year-old true freshman outperformed the hyperbolic scouting reports that preceded his enrollment at USC.

His arm was stronger than advertised, his passes more precise, his know-how more developed.

Daniels is the youngest of the three quarterbacks competing for the starting position, but was the most collected. He was the most consistent performer over the first week of camp and reaffirmed on Saturday he also could be the most spectacular.

Helton indicated he might not name a starting quarterback until the week of USC’s Sept. 1 season opener against Nevada Las Vegas, but this competition is all but over.

This isn’t intended to slight redshirt freshman Jack Sears, who has improved significantly since the spring, or redshirt sophomore Matt Fink, who would be a capable starter at several other universities.

Daniels is that good.

In his first time in a game-like situation in the Coliseum, Daniels completed 10 of 12 passes and threw for four touchdowns.

Except the statement Daniels made went beyond the numbers.

“JT, for the first time in a live-game situation, looked very comfortable,” Helton said. “Didn’t look like the situation of being in the Coliseum was too big for him and I liked the way he distributed the ball.”

If Sears looked rushed at times and Fink overly cautious, it was Daniels who struck the right balance against a fearsome Trojans defense.

The boy quarterback announced what kind of days this would be on his first play from scrimmage, faking a handoff, circling counterclockwise and uncorking a 60-yard pass that dropped into the awaiting hands of a receiver down the right sideline.

Three plays later, he made a back-shoulder throw to the same receiver, fellow freshman and former Santa Ana Mater Dei teammate Amon-ra St. Brown, this time for a touchdown.

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His touchdown pass to St. Brown demonstrated his timing and touch. He showcased his arm strength on his next scoring throw, which was from 40 yards to Velus Jones Jr.

Safety Isaiah Pola-Mao anticipated where Daniels would deliver the football but couldn’t get there in time, illustrating how the freshman can afford to take risks that other quarterbacks can’t.

There was more.

Trojans quarterback JT Daniels, shown on Aug. 3, completed 10 of 12 passes for four touchdowns during a scrimmage on Saturday.
Trojans quarterback JT Daniels, shown on Aug. 3, completed 10 of 12 passes for four touchdowns during a scrimmage on Saturday. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Daniels found St. Brown in the back of the end zone on a play-action pass.

On the third play of a two-minute drill simulation, he looked to his left, looked to his right, then squeezed a pass between two defenders to Jones. On the final play, he pump faked to draw in Olaijah Griffin and floated a pass to St. Brown for a touchdown.

There was only so much Helton could do to calm the excitement.

“He’s a very mature kid, both physically and mentally,” Helton said of Daniels. “The investment that he’s made early — in the spring of getting the playbook and studying it, the approach that he took in the summer of just shutting up and working and going through our player-run practices and learning and learning from Matt and learning from Jack — you can see the investment that he’s made. Our goal with all our freshmen is to come in and not [just] learn but compete when they come into camp. And obviously, he’s doing a nice job of competing.”

He’s doing more than that. Come Sept. 1, Daniels should be under center. The game would be only the 19th in school history started by a true freshman.

Daniels hasn’t taken a helmet to the chest at the collegiate level. He still hasn’t faced a real blitz. But neither has Sears or Fink.

And in choosing a starter, Helton is free of the kinds of obligations that prompted him to play Max Browne ahead of Sam Darnold at the start of the 2016 season.

Browne was a former national high school player of the year who not only chose USC, but also waited three years for his chance to start. Helton had to give him a chance.

There are no such considerations here, which may be why Helton made it a point to say Saturday, “We’ll put the best guy out there.”

Daniels is ready.

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