His USC cap pulled down low, his chin bordered with dark facial hair that someday might become a beard, JT Daniels looked like a kid. Because he is.
But the precocious freshman from Santa Ana Mater Dei High grew up as a quarterback Friday night in the Trojans’ dramatic-to-the-end 39-36 victory over Washington State at the Coliseum.
He completed 17 of 26 passes for 241 yards and three touchdowns, showing poise, promise and cold-eyed nerve when the Trojans needed it most. Daniels, who graduated from high school a year early to enroll at USC this summer, is gaining confidence in himself as rapidly as his teammates are gaining confidence in him. The timing of their mutual trust is almost as sweet as the timing he’s developing with his receivers.
“The guy should be a senior in high school,” junior wide receiver Michael Pittman said of his 18-year-old teammate, “so, I mean, you should expect like a learning curve.”
His learning process might have been even more advanced if USC coach Clay Helton had made the obvious decision to designate Daniels the starter well before the season began. Instead, Helton divided the work among three quarterbacks — Daniels, redshirt sophomore Matt Fink and redshirt freshman Jack Sears — and didn’t announce Daniels as the starter until Aug. 26, less than a week before USC’s opener against UNLV. In that game, Daniels became the second true freshman to start a season opener at quarterback for the Trojans, following Matt Barkley against San Jose State in 2009.
Fewer reps and less time to learn his receivers’ tendencies meant Daniels had to work harder to establish a solid connection with them and that they had to take longer than necessary to get a feel for him. The connection is still spotty at times but it was there on Friday much more often than not, especially in the pass to Pittman that should have been a touchdown but was ruled out of bounds late in the second quarter, and in the 50-yard pass to Pittman that, with the extra point, cut Washington State’s lead to 30-24 with 9:03 left in the third quarter.
It was there too on the 30-yard pass he lofted to the far corner of the end zone to Amon-ra St. Brown, his former Mater Dei teammate and current Trojan roommate, to give USC a 31-30 lead early in the fourth quarter.
“JT threw a great ball,” said St. Brown, one of seven receivers who caught at least one pass on Friday. “I ran the route, I looked back at JT and thought, ‘Oh, he didn’t throw it to me,’ but I heard the crowd go loud so I thought, ‘The ball must be in the air.’ So I looked up and the ball was right there and I just caught it.”
The more they play together, the better their chemistry will be. “I feel like that hurt us the most, not having a set guy until a week before the season because it’s hard to get timing down with three different QBs,” Pittman said after USC improved to 2-2 and 1-1 in the Pac-12. “But I feel like we’re moving in the right direction and I feel like we did a good job in practice last week so we’ve got to come back with the same thing and keep going.”
Daniels would like to do just that. “We have practice time and we’re getting used to each other more, learning where they want me to put the ball and they’re making the plays every time it’s there,” he said.
Several players mentioned an increased intensity during practices in the days leading up to Friday’s game against the Cougars. Pittman attributed it to a players-only meeting in which a number of teammates took the floor from the leadership group of about eight to 12.
“It’s not like an exclusive club or anything,” Pittman said. “We just get up and talk to the team and tell them what we want to see.”
What they saw on Friday was the continuing transformation of a kid into a man. “JT is an amazing quarterback,” said Stephen Carr, who rushed for 77 yards in eight carries and caught two passes.
Asked if Daniels had shown him anything different in guiding USC to a victory it urgently needed, Carr smiled. “Nothing different. I expect it always, from the first game to this game,” he said. “That’s something I expect.”
The next step will be to get this kind of performance every week. That might be too much to ask, but Daniels took a major step forward on Friday against the Cougars.