JT Daniels played for a powerful team in high school.
He launched his academic career in one of the country’s most famous programs.
Yet none of it really prepared this laid-back Californian for the passion that comes with playing for the Georgia Bulldogs, to play in the Southeastern Conference.
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“Football is just another thing on the west coast versus football being THE thing here,” Daniels said. “I still remember the first time my family and I drove from Atlanta Airport to Athens and saw all the Georgia Bulldog flags flying all over the place, to find out what football is like to be one. central point. I love it ever since. I go there. “
Now, in what could very well be his only full season as Georgia’s starting quarterback, the Bulldogs and their loyal Reds and Blacks are optimistic Daniels can lead them to an elusive National Championship.
He gave them a tantalizing glimpse of what he can accomplish after rising to the top of the depth chart at the end of the pandemic-plagued 2020 season.
Daniels guided the Bulldogs to four straight wins, scoring 401 yards and four touchdowns on his Georgia debut against Mississippi State and closing the season by rallying the team with a last-second triumph over Cincinnati at the Peach Bowl.
But neither of those opponents were on par with Georgia’s season opener on Saturday, when the No.5 Bulldogs face the No. 3 Clemson Tigers in Charlotte.
If Daniels is excited at the moment, it doesn’t show.
“I approach it the same as anyone else – it’s just another football game,” he insisted. “It’s cool to have a game like this in week 1. But if we beat Clemson by 100 and lose the rest of the season, we’re not going to reach the SEC (championship). wins by 100, we can still win the SEC if all else goes well. “
It’s clear that this is the kind of game Daniels has long expected to play a leading role, dating back to his days at Mater Dei High School near Los Angeles.
The private school produced a plethora of top athletes in a wide range of sports, so there was a lot of attention on Daniels after he threw over 12,000 yards – with an incredible 152 touchdowns and only 14 interceptions – during his high school career.
Daniels was one of the nation’s top rookies – No.1 on some rosters – when he signed with Southern California ahead of the 2018 season. He quickly landed the No.1 job at preseason to become the second true first-year quarterback to start for the Trojans in his first game.
Until then, everything was going as planned. But Daniels has looked a bit overwhelmed this first season and USC struggled to reach a 5-7 mark. He retained the starting position the following season, only to suffer a season-ending knee injury in Game 1.
When it became clear that the Trojans were going in a different direction, Daniels decided to move to Georgia. The Bulldogs needed a replacement for three-year-old starter Jake Fromm, but the newcomer was not fully recovered from his knee injury and began working with the Boy Scout team in non-contact drills.
As Georgia struggled to settle on a starter – starting with rookie D’Wan Mathis in a red shirt, moving quickly to former non-scholarship replacement Stetson Bennett, then giving Mathis one last chance – Daniels stoically set to work persuading the Bulldogs that he was in perfect health.
“I was impressed with the way he handled it,” said Georgian linebacker Nakobe Dean, who worked a lot against Daniesl in training. “Coming from where he came from and who he was, how he handled his membership in the Boy Scout team, how he attacked them every day, gave us all the confidence in the world in him.”
When Daniels finally got the green light to go, Georgia’s hopes of winning the SEC had vanished with losses to Alabama and Florida.
But his performance in those last four games – Daniels completed 67.2% of his throws for 1,231 yards, with 10 touchdowns and two interceptions – gave the Bulldogs a huge boost of confidence heading into a season that once again sparked the hope of winning their first national championship. title since 1980.
“Everyone on this team is on their backs,” Dean said. “We are counting on him to lead this team.
The Californian kid quickly became one of the Bulldog Nation’s most popular players.
Daniels even landed an NIL sponsorship from Zaxby’s, which operates a popular chain of chicken fast food restaurants across the South.
But Daniels isn’t thinking about the chicken.
It focuses on the Tigers.
“I was consistent with this,” Daniels said. “If a deal makes sense and it’s not a time factor, it won’t distract from all that matters, then we do.”
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After last year’s dizzying routine in the quarterback’s musical chairs, Georgia coach Kirby Smart is thrilled to have the most critical position on the field locked down.
Especially when the first game is against a team that has won two national titles in the past five years.
“I’m extremely confident in his preparation and his focus, that’s not a concern for me,” said Smart. “Distractions from the outside world aren’t really distractions for JT. He’s all the time focusing on being his best and being the best leader he can be.”