Through the first five games of his college career, JT Daniels is tied for fifth nationally in passes completed of 40 yards or more with eight.
Yet, when Daniels evaluated his performance thus far during USC’s week off, he found that something that could have been easily perceived as a strength has actually been a weakness.
After practice Tuesday in preparation for the game Saturday against Colorado, Daniels listed two specific areas where he would like to improve.
“I’d say pocket presence is one for me that I just want to keep getting better at, not fleeing too early,” Daniels said, “and perfection on the deep ball.”
Both of those issues point to the same priority. In Daniels, it is clear that USC has a freshman quarterback who views himself as a gamechanger and not a game-manager. But despite throwing for 251.4 yards per game, he has only four touchdown passes. A big part of the issue is that he has left a couple of potential scores on the field by underthrowing receivers who have gotten a couple steps on the defender.
“Time and reps,” Daniels said. “It’s just something you have to keep doing and doing until you do it right.”
Daniels has excelled at identifying one-on-one matchups at the line of scrimmage. Now he just needs to clean up his execution.
“It’s a lot to it,” wide receiver Tyler Vaughns said. “It’s not just him throwing and me catching it. It’s his steps and my steps that we just have to marry together. I have a mental clock in my head of how many steps he’s taking and how fast he’s getting the ball out, knowing the protection and how much time we do have in our route.”
Daniels took most of last week off from throwing to rest his arm. USC coach Clay Helton said he looked stronger during practice Monday and Tuesday but that the coaches were still keeping him on a “pitch count.”
Somewhere in that number of throws could lie the key to fully breaking open USC’s big-play passing attack.
“One of the best things that he does that we’ve seen early is the back-shoulder ball,” Helton said. “He’s about as good as I’ve seen with it. The thing I think he’s trying to perfect is kind of dropping it in the bucket … when they get on top of the defender, to be able to lead them out there, and that is a judgment with each and every receiver. That’s something you work on and hopefully progress through the season and get better at each one.”
New wrinkles coming
Last season, USC did not have a week off during the regular season, which made it more difficult for the Trojans to evaluate their film from the perspective of what an opposing defensive coordinator might be able to key in on.
“It was really good to be able to self-scout with a new quarterback and see what we are or at least what’s on tape,” offensive coordinator Tee Martin said. “Teams can’t prepare for what they don’t see, and it was good to see some things that have been called that are on tape that teams are prepared for and some things that we practiced that haven’t been called yet that are still good. We’ve got some wrinkles, and I look forward to getting it called on Saturdays.”
Martin and defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast left the off week with a new mandate from Helton about their playcalling.
“I challenged our coordinators to make sure that they stay aggressive at all times and play with no fear,” Helton said. “Play to win and be aggressive in all moments.”