Will JT Daniels be USC football’s savior?

Freshman quarterback JT Daniels stands after practice at Golden West College in Huntington Beach, Calif. on May 30.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Steve Daniels’ new neighborhood screams paradise for an empty-nester. What’s left of his suburban parenting existence in Irvine is stored in moving boxes, but Steve can already see that Belmont Shore has everything he and wife Alison need for their next step.

A dog beach a block away where their three furry companions can freely soak in the sun. Tons of bars and restaurants nearby on 2nd Street. But really, this move, like most everything in Steve’s life, came down to what he felt was best for his son. He had been reading — he is always arming himself with information — and came across the idea that college quarterbacks who live close to their parents do better than those who are apart. He and Alison mentally prepared themselves for a move; they just didn’t know the destination.

Ann Arbor, Mich.? Steve grew up in Detroit, so that made sense. Palo Alto? Their daughter, Madison, attends UC Santa Cruz, so that would bring the family back together. Last fall, when JT Daniels’ gut led him to choose to play football at USC instead of Michigan or Stanford, Steve and Alison could have breathed a sigh of relief and stayed in Irvine. But that is not how Steve thinks, and it is not how he taught JT to think.

“You have a plan,” Steve says, “but with any good plan, you have to be nimble.”

Steve and Alison didn’t want to take any chances with the traffic keeping JT from visiting them in his precious downtime. Long Beach is the halfway point between downtown L.A. and Irvine, and there’s just more going on here for a college kid to enjoy. Maybe he’d bring his friends from the team sometimes. Maybe they could play host around the holidays. Those benefits would be nice, sure, but they were beside the point.

“JT is Steve’s hobby,” Alison says. “He is consumed by it. It’s not like he’s into photography or into cycling. He is into JT’s football. And the good news is JT went along with it, never said no to anything. One thing after another, year after year, Steve’s cycles are spinning, just thinking, what else can we get him in? And JT went right along with it.”

The dynamic is all JT has ever known, and it has pushed him to where he is today — the unanimous winner of the Orange County quarterbacking beauty pageant, a state and national champion at Santa Ana Mater Dei High, the Gatorade national player of the year and the assumed savior of USC football over the next three to four seasons.

“He lives vicariously through me, which is awesome,” JT says. “I like to have a dad that is so involved. It can be difficult and annoying at times, but there’s no greater support and help than having a dad like that.”

It can be difficult and annoying at times, but there’s no greater support and help than having a dad like that.

— JT Daniels

Incoming USC freshman quarterback JT Daniels passes at Golden West College on May 30.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

JT looks like Steve, moves like Steve — bouncy and swaggering — and processes what life throws at him like Steve. The thing he has learned most from his dad, he says, is how to look at a problem objectively and figure out how to solve it. Football, so far, has been the simple part. He has been coached and trained by a deep and experienced team of paid professionals “to have all the answers,” Steve says.

As soon as JT got the USC playbook in February, he wanted to memorize the whole thing in one day. When Sunday became Monday and he hadn’t gotten all of it, he asked his parents if he could take the next day off school. Steve loved that. The answer was yes.

“He’s a hell of a negotiator,” Steve says.

Once JT learned it, Steve would routinely quiz him. By the end of the spring, they were going over it about weekly. Steve’s instincts said that wasn’t enough.

“He feels like mentally, he’s there, as far as he can go without actually doing it,” Steve says. “And I have to respect that.”

Letting go can be tough. Steve has given everything yet it still feels like there’s more in reserve. Six years ago, he decided to live each day with the goal of doing what his own father couldn’t do for him. JT’s success is deeply personal.

But there is one thing during this journey Steve couldn’t have accounted for, one thing that will define the coming years at USC:

“He’s never really failed,” said trainer Scot Prohaska, who has been JT’s emotional guru since the eighth grade. “He’s going to have some struggles at USC. My goal is to mentor him through those, make sure he has the right mind-set to grow and not feel all the expectations he has on him. It’s been frustrating that he hasn’t failed at anything, because I haven’t gotten to teach him those lessons.”

Steve never considered JT could make football look so easy that it might be detrimental to his development. At a recent lunch meeting in Belmont Shore, as he detailed every important marker of his and JT’s football life, he was asked if his 18-year-old son had ever lost out on something he wanted. He gave it some thought.

“He’s lost games,” Steve says. “But no. Not to my knowledge. Not that I’ve ever seen.”

“It wasn’t just about his football. It was about reconnecting in a deeper, loving way with my family.”

— Steve Daniels

Steve Daniels, right, poses with son JT, a quarterback who was a state and national champion at Mater Dei
(Courtesy of the Daniels family)

The competitive streak that lives in JT Daniels came alive in Steve at a young age. His parents divorced when he was 2, and his dad didn’t come back into his life until Steve was 10. Within a few years, he was gone again. Steve’s mom worked as a waitress, and they lived in public housing.

Football became an outlet. He played linebacker and quarterback and was honorable mention all-state as a senior. In college at Western Michigan, he lived on student loans and government grants and got his pigskin fix by leading his flag football intramural team to the national championship tournament.

Steve graduated and moved to Chicago. He worked in telecom sales in the early days of the internet. He wanted to have a blast and then have a family.

“What you don’t have when you’re younger, you want,” he says.

First, Steve had to find the girl. He saw her across the bar in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood. Alison liked Steve. He was charming. But she was into another guy. She turned him down multiple times.

“That’s what it probably took for him,” Alison says, laughing. “He’d probably gotten every girl that he ever wanted, and there was one that he wanted that he couldn’t have. And that’s the one that sticks.”

Steve and Alison got married. They had Madison and then Jonathan Tyler. But Steve’s life still revolved around work. He was a natural salesman, with charisma and the need for people to like him, and by 30, he was a vice president in charge of about 100 employees.

Steve promised Alison they would move back to her native Southern California — she grew up in Los Feliz — but when they did, that just meant Steve had to travel constantly to continue his rise. For many years, he was out of town three to four nights a week.

“You try to grind it out,” Steve says. “But on the weekend, all I wanted to do was sit in my cave. I was just so burnt out from the week. It’s a double whammy. JT sees his dad, and he wants to hang out with his dad, now his dad’s not giving him time even when he’s home.”

While struggling to find a life-work balance, Steve was able to give JT something they could share.

“JT is Steve’s hobby. ... It’s not like he’s into photography or into cycling. He is into JT’s football.

— Alison Daniels

JT Daniels scrambles against St. John Bosco. (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

“He was the biggest part of me wanting to play football,” JT says. “I actually hated football because he would always be watching the Lions play when I just wanted to be a kid. I was 4 years old, I was playing with Thomas the Train and he’s watching the Lions game. I’m like, come on now.”

At 5, JT started playing. He was a running back. At 9, he won his first quarterback job. At 12, JT had shown so much promise at the position that Steve felt it was time to have a conversation with his son. He told him that he had two rare traits — accuracy and an aptitude for mental processing — and that he could go as far as he wanted in this game as long as he was willing to give everything he had to it.

JT thought that sounded awesome.

In return, Steve did some soul searching. He decided it was time to leave his job and work on his family. He put his career on hold for two years.

“Candidly, it wasn’t just about his football,” Steve says. “It was about reconnecting in a deeper, loving way with my family, my daughter, JT and Allie.”

All he needed was a plan.

With time on his side, Steve could give JT every advantage. His research found that the best players practiced in the summer at Dorsey High as part of the B2G 7-on-7 program. The Detroit mentality in Steve had him convinced the Orange County players from well-off families were soft. He wanted JT to find out where he stood against talent from the inner city.

Nobody at Dorsey knew JT Daniels. He was just one of 30 quarterbacks who showed up the first day. After eight weeks, JT, then an eighth-grader, became one of the top three quarterbacks on B2G’s top team made up of high school juniors and seniors. Ron Allen, the founder of B2G, had never had an eighth-grader play for his most mature team, and hasn’t since.

“Most quarterbacks find the path of least resistance,” Allen says. “My salute to JT and his dad, they remained humble. They didn’t buy their way into more reps or any kind of favoritism. They just kept showing up every weekend and proving it.”

Steve dug deeper into his new life. He entered JT into Football University camp, which holds tournaments all over the country. There, Steve picked up on something: a trend among talented players to repeat eighth grade in an effort to develop their bodies before high school. He decided that was the right move for JT. Alison would home-school him, and Steve would find help to continue JT’s football education.

He landed on Prohaska, who has trained many NFL and NHL athletes. Prohaska also trains a group of high school athletes. JT immediately asked to train with the pros.

“I said, ‘I’ll make you a deal,’ ” Prohaska says. “’’Every Sunday, you have to send me a list of three things you’re thankful for, your gratitude journal. You send me that every week, you can train with the pros.’ ”

Prohaska wanted JT to find deeper meaning in his pursuit of success. He assigned him two books — “Mind Gym” by Gary Mack and “Season of Life” by Jeffrey Marx — which JT devoured and began processing the only way he knew how: by asking more questions.

JT and Prohaska began talking every Thursday night for a couple of hours about whatever JT had learned that week.

“That second eighth-grade year really was the most transformational year of his life,” Alison says.

In his freshman year at Mater Dei, JT competed with junior Matt McDonald for the starting job. It was a dead heat, and Mater Dei coach Bruce Rollinson went with the veteran to start the season. McDonald went down with an injury in the second game, and JT never gave the job back. McDonald transferred to Mission Viejo.

Daniels was just getting started on setting a new standard for excellence at Mater Dei and throughout Orange County, and the support team around him would grow too. Steve added Jordan Palmer, who works with college quarterbacks preparing for the NFL, and Adam Dedeaux, who has worked with many top NFL quarterbacks, including Tom Brady and Andrew Luck, as personal coaches.

Last fall, at the beginning of JT’s junior year, Steve was watching a Mater Dei practice when a thought occurred to him.

“I’m like, man, this is so slow for him,” he says.

An internet rumor surfaced that JT was considering reclassifying to the 2018 recruiting class. That was untrue, but it sparked conversation. Steve privately wondered how he could keep JT engaged for another year.

In December, JT announced he would reclassify and join the Trojans’ 2018 class. Steve swears their decision was made before Sam Darnold announced he was leaving USC early for the NFL, opening up the starting quarterback job.

Even the best plans can use a little serendipity.

This spring, with JT’s high school career and college choice behind him, Steve decided his son had reached such a level of maturity and independence that he deserved a chance to show the world who he was becoming beyond the hype.

The interview topics went scattershot, because that’s who JT is at 18 years old. He is taking in a lot and seeing what works for him. In interviews with the Athletic and Bleacher Report, he talked of searching for contentment and his interest in Buddhism, which he had been exposed to through Prohaska and a comparative religion class at Mater Dei.

It was surprising to JT when those comments ended up as a focus of the articles, one of which unabashedly labeled him “the next great USC quarterback” months before he would have a chance to unpack in his dorm room.

“I have no problem telling people about my philosophy and what I think about things,” JT says. “I’m going to change my mind a million times. I’m 18. There’s a lot more for me to learn. I don’t believe something and think it’s the end-all, be-all. I’m always looking for something new that’s interesting that I can try out and play with for a while and if I like it I stick with it. I’m just trying to find the truth.”

Steve thought JT’s Buddhism comments showed something special about him.

“I was incredibly proud of him for being vulnerable,” Steve says. “To show people that, just because it looks like you have it all, everyone has challenges, and to be able to share that with people, I thought was amazing. In true JT form, what does he do? He goes out and tries to figure out how to solve it. He doesn’t wallow in pity.”

Just like his dad, JT relishes finding solutions. When he reclassified to 2018, that meant he would have to complete 10 classes — two course loads — in one semester. JT didn’t look at the challenge in a traditional way.

He realized that if he didn’t do all of the homework but aced the tests, he could manage his time better and still make the necessary grades to prove that he understood the lessons.

“I can get into USC with a 2.3 [grade-point average] with an athletic scholarship,” JT says. “… I don’t care if you see I have a 3.0 or a 4.2. It doesn’t mean anything to me. As long as I’m doing well on the test, then I’m doing what you should be doing at school. That’s just my personal philosophy.”

This weekend, JT moved to USC, leaving Steve and Alison behind in Belmont Shore. He’ll start classes soon, and, in August, he’ll compete for the starting quarterback job with Matt Fink and Jack Sears, neither of whom created separation during the spring.

The expectation of fans and people who know him well is that Daniels will do what he’s done his whole life — win a competition. But even if he does, it is only a beginning. The pressure will build quickly.

“Now it’s at a stage where there’s a bigger cliff to fall off of,” Prohaska says, “that I have to catch him if he falls. But I’m looking forward to that challenge. How he handles it. He doesn’t know that I’m waiting for that.”

Steve and Alison will be there too. But they believe JT has gained enough perspective to handle whatever comes on his own.

Steve recalls an interview that he and JT once saw with Johnny Unitas, back when he and his son were just a couple of football junkies with a shared dream.

“They were asking Johnny Unitas, ‘How are you so clutch?’ ” Steve says. “He says, ‘Well, I don’t consider it clutch. I just work harder than everybody else, and I’m more prepared than everybody else. For me, it’s just a rep.’ It stays with JT to this day.”

Twitter: @BradyMcCollough