Until USC’s loss to Stanford, JT Daniels’ last defeat as a starting quarterback came all the way back in December 2016 when Santa Ana Mater Dei High fell to St. John Bosco in the CIF Southern Section championship.
Entering his first college season, coming off an undefeated state championship run in 2017, Daniels was being readied to face the inevitable trying moments that would come with the jump in competition.
“He’s never really failed,” Scot Prohaska, Daniels’ personal trainer and emotional guru, told The Times in May. “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.”
After Daniels injured his throwing hand on USC’s first series against the Cardinal, school was suddenly in session. He left the game for one series to have his bruise evaluated, returned and could not engineer a touchdown drive, finishing by completing 16 of 34 passes for 215 yards and two interceptions, which both came late. The first was a throw he would love to have back — a corner route to Amon-ra St. Brown that should have been a touchdown to pull USC within 17-10.
“It was not a good throw,” Daniels said bluntly.
This week, Daniels has taken more responsibly for USC’s performance than is probably fair. But part of being a quarterback is owning all of it, and in that way, Daniels showed little rust in his reaction to his first loss in 20 months.
The idea that Daniels was going to breeze through consecutive road games at Stanford and Texas early in the season was always a bit of a fantasy. Now that he got the first disappointment out of the way, Daniels has been presented with quite an opportunity for nationally televised, prime-time redemption against the Longhorns.
“As many reps as I can get right now, the better it is for me,” Daniels said. “[Stanford] did put up a few looks we didn’t see too much on film. It’s just a different ballgame. I’ll get used to it.”
While Daniels took the blame for the loss in the immediate aftermath, he has not seemed to be too hard on himself. He said the mistakes he made were mistakes that one would expect from a player in his situation. He also said he is only allowed to make those mistakes once.
“I think you’re gonna see what his strengths are on Saturday,” USC quarterbacks coach Bryan Ellis said. “What I was really, really impressed with was his toughness. That’s hard to do as an 18-year-old kid, stand in there and get hit in the mouth and keep standing in there. There’s some things we gotta progress with, no doubt about that. We can see it’s not good enough. The standard is set way higher than what we played.”
Stanford racked up four sacks of Daniels thanks to some movement and blitzing that USC’s offensive line did not adequately manage. USC coach Clay Helton has a feeling from studying Texas defensive coordinator Todd Orlando’s diverse schemes the last two seasons that Daniels could be under even more heat Saturday.
Helton recalled how Texas’ pressure packages forced Sam Darnold to move off his intended reads and improvise throughout USC’s grueling 27-24 double-overtime win.
“You never know what you’re going to get,” Helton said. “I’ve looked at six different games, and it’s been six different plans. I’ve told Tee [Martin] that we’re gonna have to do a great job as an offensive staff of saying, ‘Hey, this is what they’re doing, and these are the adjustments we need to make.’ You’re gonna walk in the park, and it’s gonna be different. He does a really nice job dealing in the art of confusion.”
Helton is counting on Martin to devise a scheme that can keep Daniels’ pocket unhindered long enough for him to diagnose coverages and make his decision.
It doesn’t sound like Helton has much doubt about his young quarterback.