USC Football

Is JT Daniels the Answer to USC’s Quarterback Problem?

July 8, 2018
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    The 2018 USC football team faces an issue rare for them in the 21st Century; who will play quarterback? With star signal-caller Sam Darnold departed for the NFL, the two most likely replacements, redshirt sophomore Matt Fink and redshirt freshman Jack Sears, have big shoes to fill. Neither was particularly impressive during spring practices, as uneven quarterback play made for uninspiring and uneven offensive performances.

    This wouldn’t be a big worry if the Trojans’ roster had a quarterback with even a shred of experience. Alas, the (welcome) downside to having a star like Darnold behind center is that other players don’t get much of a look at game action. Fink threw just nine passes in three games of mop-up duty in 2017, while Sears has never seen a real collegiate snap. With so much uncertainty at the most important position on the field, USC fans have the right to feel concerned.

    This gaping hole opens up the possibility for a pretty rare occurrence in college football. True freshman JT Daniels, star quarterback from Mater Dei, enrolled at USC last month and has already made an impressive debut at player-run practices. The 18-year-old committed to USC last July as the nation’s #1 QB prospect in the 2019 class, before reclassifying to forego his senior year and join the Trojans a year early.

    After taking the reins at Mater Dei as a freshman replacing the injured starter, Daniels threw for over 12,000 yards in three seasons, with a 68% completion percentage and 152:14 touchdown:interception ratio. The hype around him is huge, and with good reason. But can he step in and win USC’s starting job in a season he was supposed to spend in high school? Let’s break down the tape.

Strengths

    Though he doesn’t have a cannon arm, Daniels has tremendous accuracy and touch. He throws a catchable ball and identifies the ideal trajectory for every throw. He constantly puts deep balls on the money, dropping them into receivers' hands where only they can catch it.

    Some aspects of Daniels’ game not only appear college-ready but display NFL-caliber skills. He often shows fantastic timing and anticipation on his throws.

    In both clips above, Daniels releases the ball as his receiver plants to change directions, giving the defender less time to react. This requires anticipatory ball placement; here and in general, Daniels leads his targets perfectly.

    Another positive in Daniels’ tape is his solid mechanics. He has a pretty quick release and uses his core to generate strength behind the ball.

    A USC quarterback must have the ability to get the ball to the receiver in a position to make a play. Because the Trojans recruit so well at the offensive skill positions, the quarterback doesn’t always need to make amazing throws. If he can deliver the ball at the right time and with the proper placement, the athletes can gain huge chunks of yardage by making plays with the ball in their hands.

    Playing alongside perhaps the best offensive supporting cast in high school football, Daniels is already able to do just that, as shown below with fellow incoming Trojan Amon-Ra St. Brown.

    By throwing the ball slightly short and far to the outside, Daniels gives St. Brown more space to make his man miss, setting up a massive gain that puts Mater Dei in scoring position.

    Although he always had the arm talent, Daniels in his junior year showed an improved ability to make plays with his feet. This starts with what I believe is his best skill: his pocket presence.

    Daniels’ proficiency at sensing pressure and navigating the pocket is another trait that NFL teams look for in their quarterback. Whether he’s buying time to throw or taking off on a scramble, Daniels can be relied on to give his team multiple opportunities on one play.

    He’s best as a pocket passer, but he has shown he can improvise. He can throw perfectly well on the run and does a good job of keeping his eyes downfield. He’s not Sam Darnold, but he can make the one-man plays that Darnold often made to save USC’s offense.

    Daniels improved his mobility in his junior year, as appears in both his rushing statistics and his tape. After being a nonfactor on the ground his first two seasons, Daniels rushed for 561 yards and 9 touchdowns on 63 carries as a senior, per Max Preps.

    Although lacking elite athleticism, Daniels is capable of taking off and running for first downs. You won’t base an offense around his running ability, but he’s quite effective attacking a scattered defense on a passing play.

    He’s got a decent amount of wiggle, enough to make a man miss and get a few extra yards. Occasionally, he even flashes nice speed on long runs.

    Part of what makes Daniels such a great prospect is his mind. He has the NFL quarterback brain, starting with his ability to read defensive players. He has a fantastic reaction time and anticipates their movement well.

    In the first clip above, he sees the linebacker, number 15, start to go with the slant from the slot receiver, allowing Daniels to fire to St. Brown on the outside slant in the vacated space. In the second clip, he recognizes that the safety helps on the post route by slot receiver Chris Parks, leaving the cornerback in one-on-one coverage against St. Brown, a frightful proposition.

    These are not incredibly impressive reads, but Daniels doesn’t miss a beat in identifying the open man. That will help his learning curve against faster college defenses. This quick-twitch decision making also reveals itself in Daniels’ ability to take advantage of defensive mistakes.

    In the first clip above, Daniels recognizes the blown coverage down the left sideline. The cornerback stays up, leaving the one high safety to recover to the open receiver, which he can’t do. In the second clip, the safety and the linebacker are confused about who is supposed to cover the seam route, and Daniels has a wide open touchdown to Parks. There is little room for error against Daniels; if there is a miscommunication in the secondary, he will exploit it.

    Daniels can read not only individual defenders but entire defenses. In both plays below, Daniels identifies man coverage and knows that his best bet is to target the receiver running a double move against a slower defender, a linebacker and a safety respectively.

    Daniels is just as adept against zone. Against Mission Viejo, he sees the Cover 4 coverage and knows to attack the flats, leading to a third-down conversion. Against St. John Bosco, he waits patiently for St. Brown to get between zones, setting up a big catch and run.

    Daniels uses these skills to strike quickly and often. The plays below, from a drive in which the Monarchs went 70 yards in 62 seconds against Bosco, is a snapshot of why his numbers are so prolific.

    These two plays encapsulate many of Daniels’ strengths. First, he recognizes the man coverage and throws the ball with perfect timing and accuracy to place it between the linebacker and the safety. Then he steps up slightly to evade the edge rusher, sees the cornerback bite on the outside fake on the double move, and leads his receiver into open space with a touch pass only his man can reach.

    This is the JT Daniels who can win the Trojans’ starting job, who has a chance to be the next great USC quarterback and possibly a first-round draft pick. He has all the skills not only to be great, but to do something rare: start as a reclassified true freshman quarterback for a blue-blood university.

Weaknesses/Questions   

    All that said, Daniels is not perfect. Just like any other prospect, he has his question marks, both in the tape and in theoretical translation to the next level.

    The most glaring problem is his tendency to chase the big play. USC fans who watched in horror as Darnold turned the ball over on knucklehead decisions might have Vietnam-style flashbacks when Daniels forces throws into coverage.

    Daniels could get away with this at Mater Dei because he was playing with superior talent. In fact, it’s possible that his impressive supporting cast was the reason for his risky throws: he trusted his guys to make tough plays and wasn’t afraid to give them opportunities. How else do you explain decisions such as this, where he commits the cardinal sin of throwing back across the field after the play has already developed?

    Daniels was lucky that this wasn’t a pick six, let alone that it became a completed pass for a first down. He simply cannot make these throws at the next level.

    That clip also shows another Darnold-esque weakness: unwillingness to get rid of the ball. For all the times Darnold scrambled in the backfield avoiding would-be tacklers before miraculously hitting a receiver for a big gain, there were plenty of times his crazy scrambling ended in big losses or back-breaking turnovers.

    That’s what happens with Daniels in the plays below. First, he escapes the pocket only to get sacked for a big loss. Then he attempts a throw with a defensive lineman draped around him. Both plays could have been avoided by throwing the ball away or tucking and taking the sack respectively.

    The next play is a great example. When Daniels runs back behind his own 45-yard line, he has an opportunity to get rid of the ball. Instead, he holds on a beat too long and thus gets dropped for a costly loss.

    You want your quarterback to be fearless and seek the big play, but you need him to be smart. Daniels must learn when to cut his losses and chuck it out of bounds or at a receiver’s feet.

    Strangely, Daniels misses open targets downfield a little too often. He almost seems to be better at throwing deep balls to receivers smothered in coverage than to those running in space.

    This may be a mechanics issue, or simply the result of Mater Dei running a lot of deep routes. The more times an offense runs such plays, the more examples there will be of the quarterback missing the throw. Regardless, these chances will be fewer and farther between in major college football, and Daniels will have to take advantage of every opportunity.

    Other than that, his on-tape weaknesses are mostly nitpicks. He lacks good anticipation on deep out-breaking routes, often leaving the ball behind the receiver. And his good-not-great arm means he sometimes under-throws deep balls.

    That last point leads into our next category of questions. Daniels is 6-2, 205 pounds, a little on the small side for a prototypical pro-style quarterback. He doesn’t have top-end speed, size, or arm strength. Does he have the physical ability to match up with college athletes? Will his mobility be exposed behind a USC offensive line that has a reputation for being a bit weak?

    The good news for Daniels is twofold. First, quarterback is the one position in football where the power of the mind can overcome physical limitations. (Just check out Tom Brady’s combine tape.) As I’ve said, Daniels has the quarterback brain.

    Second, it’s possible that Daniels’ recent speed improvements reflect better than his first two seasons who he will be at USC. If he puts in the work in the weight room and continues to improve, there’s no reason why he should be a physical liability in college.

    Another question surrounding Daniels’ transition: how effective will he be facing teams of equal or greater talent to his? At Mater Dei, he was surrounded by one of the best rosters n prep football. He had great athletes at the offensive skill positions, a dominant offensive line, and a stingy defense. Did his success come from his performance, or his team’s?

    To be clear, Daniels’ weaknesses are mostly either nitpicks or theoretical issues. His tape suggests he is worthy of his reputation and is likely the future of the quarterback position at USC.

    But the question remains: will he be behind center for the Trojans in 2018? The smart money says that Daniels won’t be the starter, at least not to begin the season. Perhaps he will take over partway through 2018, but Fink and Sears have the advantage of not only being with the program in previous years, but working with this specific roster in spring ball. Daniels has  worked with his teammates only for the last month; he will have a lot of ground to cover to earn the job.

    But if anyone can do it, it’s Daniels. He can be a special player, with the potential to carry a program. Don’t bet on it, but don’t be surprised if Daniels leads the Trojans out of the tunnel come Week One against UNLV.

 

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Is JT Daniels the Answer to USC’s Quarterback Problem?

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