JT Daniels ended his first full practice as USC’s starting quarterback by tossing deep balls to his wide receivers. He joked with Tyler Vaughns on his way off Howard Jones Field, smiling lightheartedly. Only last week, his duties would have been completed right then and there.
But Tuesday, Daniels had to hang around. USC sports information director Tim Tessalone came over to him to share some quick wisdom, stuff they had already covered in a recent team meeting about handling media interviews. Be smart, Tessalone reminded him. Then came Clay Helton, who decided Sunday to turn Daniels from a heralded true freshman into the new face of his entire program, to chat for a second.
To Daniels’ left, Amon-ra St. Brown, his roommate and high school teammate, was holding court on the first day first-year Trojans were made available to the media. When St. Brown finished, Daniels was escorted over to the spot against the fence where Helton delivers his post-practice talk because the TV demand was too much for an informal setting.
Finally, the lights were on.
Asked about playing in front of a full Coliseum on Saturday, Daniels replied, “Just going to breathe and stay calm. … I don’t think it will be that big of a deal.”
Asked about going from being a high school junior at Santa Ana Mater Dei to a college freshman at USC in these last months, he said, “It’s definitely been a shift in a couple different aspects. … It hasn’t been that overwhelming.”
He certainly did not appear to be overwhelmed. To close his four-minute, 20-second unveiling, Daniels was asked if he felt like one week to prepare for his debut against Nevada Las Vegas was enough time. He leveled with his questioner.
“I have absolutely no idea what the answer to your question is,” Daniels said. “I think it’s enough time. We’ll find out Saturday what enough time is.”
Helton looked on from behind the pack as Daniels took his first steps walking into the bigger role a Trojans starting quarterback plays in the country’s second-largest media market.
At least three more years to go.
“He looked extremely comfortable in front of all y’all,” Helton said, “and that’s not easy for an 18-year-old kid. His maturity level both on the field and off has been extremely impressive.”
Helton has used that word — comfortable — often in describing Daniels during his first weeks wearing that gold practice jersey. Helton said Tuesday he decided on Daniels because of how he played during the Trojans’ scrimmages when they really let the kids play. He stopped far of saying that it was Daniels’ job to lose after he lit up the Coliseum in the first scrimmage, going 10 of 12 for four touchdowns. But the performance registered.
“Now, in that first scrimmage, there was some moments that you go, ‘Wow, this kid is really mature for his age,’ ” Helton said. “You don’t know what it’s going to be like when a kid walks into the Coliseum for the first time in a scrimmage atmosphere when he’s go to compete for a job, and he did what he did."
Daniels will be back in the Coliseum on Saturday, and, no, he does not know if there will be enough time. It is quarterbacks coach Bryan Ellis’ job to get him there, and he will start with a familiar refrain.
“Be smart,” Ellis said.
Luckily, smart is not a struggle for Daniels.
“His mind is so far advanced from any 18-year-old I’ve ever seen,” Ellis said.
Now free to fully gush about Daniels, Ellis recalled a meeting with him, offensive coordinator Tee Martin and Helton during his recruitment in which they asked him to draw up his favorite play, how he reads it, and to draw up a specific offensive line protection.
“All [quarterback recruits], especially nowadays with spread football, they don’t know all that stuff,” Ellis said. “They’re throwing bubble screens and stuff like that. He enjoys it, he takes pride in it, and you could tell at an early stage that was his game and he would be able to execute those things.”
Daniels acknowledged there was an adjustment period early in camp to find his footing.
“I did start to develop a certain level of comfort,” he said, “just going from the first couple days where it’s like, ‘Wow, this is a whole new sport,’ to just as camp went on, asking questions with Coach Tee and Coach Ellis and Coach Helton, and it starts to slow down a little bit.”
USC expects the Rebels to bring lots of defensive pressure to try to rattle Daniels on Saturday. It’s what any defense would do, and the Trojans will be prepared for it.
“I feel good about him, you know, but I’m not gonna sit here and lie to you,” Ellis said. “It’s always a little nerve-racking when you go play a game with someone that’s never played before. We have a plan for everything. There’s a plan for him rolling, there’s a plan for us sputtering, there’s a plan for things not going well, there’s a plan for things going really well.”