True freshman JT Daniels announced as starting quarterback for USC

“I am honored that Coach Helton picked me as the starter,” USC quarterback JT Daniels said in a statement. “I understand this is a huge responsibility and I need to work hard to be prepared to handle it.”
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Even before Sam Darnold decided to leave USC early for the NFL — and before JT Daniels decided to reclassify to the 2018 recruiting class and forgo his senior year of high school — there was a persistent buzz about the Trojans’ plan of succession at their coveted quarterback position.

The reverberations even reached Darnold’s off-campus apartment.

“We talked back and forth between our roommate group about how we were excited to get him here,” said Tyler Petite, USC senior tight end and Darnold’s roommate. “And we always joked with Sam that {JT} was going to be better than him.”

Will JT Daniels be USC football’s savior? »

From the moment those decisions were made around Christmastime last year, it has seemed almost too good to be true for USC fans. The Trojans lost a No. 3 overall pick in the NFL Draft but replaced him with a player widely expected to be selected around the same part of the draft three years later.


With Darnold clearing the way for Daniels, the 18-year-old still had to go out and actually win the job. While it was easy for observers of the program to assume his ascent was a foregone conclusion, there was a very real possibility that the pressure of performing during his first fall camp would be overwhelming, and that USC coach Clay Helton would have to strongly consider redshirt sophomore Matt Fink or redshirt freshman Jack Sears.

But Daniels, from the first practice Aug. 3, showed that he was exactly who everyone thought he was. Three weeks and two days later, on Sunday night, Helton was ready to announce the news that Trojans from coast to coast have been waiting for since the new year.

“At the completion of camp,” Helton said in a statement, “it became clear to me and our staff that JT had taken a step ahead of Matt, Jack and Holden [Thomas]. … In the end, JT Daniels has earned the starting position and will be the starter against UNLV. As you can imagine, JT was excited when we let him know, but his uncanny maturity kept him focused on what is next.”

Daniels and his parents, Steve and Alison, have said that he was going to USC a year early no matter what decision Darnold made. And the timeline backs that up, with Daniels deciding to leave Santa Ana Mater Dei on Dec. 22 and Darnold announcing his intentions to leave USC on Jan. 3. Their belief was that Daniels had learned all he could at the high school level and would have benefited more from a redshirt year playing behind Darnold than another year pursuing more national accolades at Mater Dei.

Daniels sent a message early in camp that he was going to be tough to beat. A pure pocket passer with a presence and command rare for his age, he simply looked the part. Coaches were willing to rave about him while also complimenting how far Fink and Sears had come since the spring. At the first scrimmage in the Coliseum, Daniels completed 10 of 12 passes for four touchdowns, three coming to high school teammate at Mater Dei, Amon-ra St. Brown. For many, that was all they needed to see.

Helton continued to evaluate the quarterbacks and try to create a competitive atmosphere. Fink and Sears had earned the right to a fair fight. It appeared that Daniels brought out the best in them.

In USC’s game notes for Saturday’s opener against Nevada Las Vegas, Fink is listed as the backup with Sears the third-string option. Walk-on Holden Thomas is listed fourth.

“Matt, Jack and Holden handled the decision with class and grace as I expected,” Helton said, “and I reminded each that they need to keep pushing to be ready to play when called upon. After this camp we have no doubt that each one can lead our team when asked to do so.”

Daniels, because of a USC rule not allowing true freshmen to do interviews until the season begins, has not yet spoken publicly about his first months on campus. He expressed in a statement that he would have been OK if Helton had chosen Fink or Sears.

“I am honored that Coach Helton picked me as the starter,” Daniels said. “I understand this is a huge responsibility and I need to work hard to be prepared to handle it.”

Daniels will become the second true freshman to start the opener at quarterback for USC, following fellow Mater Dei graduate Matt Barkley, who got the starting nod in 2009.

It remains to be seen if Daniels can pick up where Darnold left off in leading the Trojans to a Pac-12 championship last season and, eventually, take them to their first appearance in the College Football Playoff and a true return to national prominence. The early signs have his teammates hopeful.

“JT looks great,” Petite said. “He’s a guy that doesn’t look like a freshman. He’s a guy that’s going to make his throws, and he’s not afraid to do so, which is really key as a quarterback. We have to keep in mind he’s still a freshman.”

Depth chart released

USC released its first official depth chart of the fall Sunday night. Here are the key takeaways:

• Running backs Aca’Cedric Ware, Vavae Malepeai and Stephen Carr are listed as co-starters, signaling a committee approach to start the year.

• True freshman wide receivers and camp standouts St. Brown and Devon Williams are the backups on the outside to Tyler Vaughns and Michael Pittman Jr.

• Austin Jackson beat out Clayton Bradley for the left tackle position.

• On defense, safety Bubba Bolden has won the starting job opposite Marvell Tell III. He beat out Ykili Ross, who will not play for the Trojans this fall. According to USC’s game notes, Ross has decided to focus on graduating so that he can become a graduate transfer.

• The cornerback spot opposite Iman Marshall is still up for grabs between Greg Johnson and Isaiah Langley.

• In special teams, St. Brown has taken over the top spot as punt returner, followed by Ajene Harris and Tyler Vaughns.

Twitter: @BradyMcCollough