Georgia Bulldogs will go as far as JT Daniels can take them

Credit: SEC

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Georgia quarterback JT Daniels downplays the hype that will surround the matchup of two Power 5 schools to start 2021 season at SEC Media Days.

Credit: SEC

The transfer portal, the sci-fi name for college football’s emergency exit, does indeed bridge different worlds. For when JT Daniels stepped through it, leaving behind Southern Cal and plunging into the maelstrom of Southern football, he was committing to a great leap not only between programs but also cultures.

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His old coach in Orange County, Calif., at Mater Dei High, one who has helped turn out such other collegiate slingers as Matt Leinart and Matt Barkley, never much doubted that his guy’s talents would travel well.

“I think he had to win the respect of his teammates because for some unknown reason California kids are looked at as beach bums, soft, which fascinates me. I also knew that if anybody could fit into a different environment, it would be JT,” Bruce Rollinson said.

There is no question now as to where he belongs — JT Daniels is just as vital to the Southern college football experience as the smuggled flask of Jack Daniel’s. Plugged into the final four games of the Bulldogs’ 2020 campaign, he quickly made it obvious that he didn’t play the game in board shorts and sandals.

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Georgia quarterback JT Daniels (18) takes a snap Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020, in Athens. (Brynn Anderson/AP)

Credit: AP

Georgia quarterback JT Daniels (18) takes a snap Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020, in Athens. (Brynn Anderson/AP)

Credit: AP

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Georgia quarterback JT Daniels (18) takes a snap Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020, in Athens. (Brynn Anderson/AP)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

He knew he belonged even before that.

“Football is just one other thing on the West Coast, that’s how I felt, versus it being the main thing here,” Daniels said. “That’s the first thing I remember, when my family and I drove from the Atlanta airport to Athens seeing the Georgia Bulldog flag flying everywhere. And getting to experience what it’s like to have football be such a main focal point. I’ve loved it since I got here, and I still do.”

Once everyone recognized the fit, the question became what took Kirby Smart so long to certify Daniels - recovering from a torn ACL the first game of Southern Cal’s 2019 season — ready to start. Those 401 yards and four touchdown passes he threw in his Georgia debut against Mississippi State sure would have come in handy two weeks earlier against Florida.

Any regrets have been shelved. Now on the basis of 2020 hindsight – four wins, 1,231 passing yards, 10 TDs, two interceptions at the close of last season – Daniels has become the hearth around which Georgia’s long-denied national championship ambition warms its hands. And it was enough to install him as a serious Heisman Trophy contender this season.

You can say he and his family are fully invested in the quest. Haven’t they already hosted nine teammates during a May excursion to California, to work out and bond in a way far more familiar to the NFL than to college football?

Over the offseason, Daniels had spoken of taking the next step in becoming a team leader: “I think once you earn a certain level of trust from your teammates seeing how you work, and knowing that you’re here for them, you can start being more vocal and doing more things.” Then he put those words to cross-continental action.

JT Daniels stats (2020 regular season)

The many stories preceding Daniels to Athens had the burning-sage aroma of California upon them. He has been portrayed as an incredibly introspective player, curious, and a perfectionist almost to a fault. His father had been taking him to quarterback camps since JT was an adolescent. But there’s more, much more. The gurus, both physical and mental, lined up behind him help JT get to know thine own self. A few examples:

From the L.A. Times: A visit with a sports nutritionist once found that Daniels was low in several important elements, including something called coenzyme q-10, used in energy production. He also was found to have an acute reaction to dairy – and he had been gulping milk all his life.

From the Bleacher Report: Studying comparative religion in high school, Daniels borrowed from Buddhism in his search for peace of mind.

Another from the L.A Times: “Mental Conditioning Expert” Trevor Moawad worked with Daniels on the concept of “neutral thinking.” Said Moawad at the time, “The idea of being neutral was extremely powerful to JT. It allowed him to understand that, OK, this happened, but what happened next is based on what I choose to do, not what just happened.”

The search never ends. Even as late as this summer, Daniels during an interview with the SEC Network, spoke of how his work with a sports psychologist at Georgia helped him deal with all the uncertainties resulting from his injury, his move to the South and the COVID-19 climate.

One relationship that matters very much now, on a very practical level, is the one he is forging with Georgia’s offensive coordinator Todd Monken. With a full and healthy spring and fall behind Daniels, he has no reason not to blossom if blossoming is indeed in his future.

When the pragmatist running the Georgia offense is asked what ultimately will make the competitive marriage to Daniels work, he sees two basic keys.

Time. That they’ve had, and now a full spring and fall camp to get in synch. “Over time, you get to know each other and figure out how to get somebody to be at his best as a player or just a human being,” Monken said. “So, it just takes time to get him to understand what we want to do offensively, what we need him to do with the team in terms of leading, in terms of being a coach on the field.

And winning. That they’ve had, but in only a small sample. “That relationship is tied to success. We’re tied together. Let’s not kid ourselves, the more success we have, the more fun it will be. The less success we have, it’s not that much fun. So, the better he gets and the better I do, the better relationship will be.”

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Georgia quarterback JT Daniels (18) during a game against South Carolina on Saturday, Nov. 28, 2020, at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia, SC. (Tony Walsh/UGA Sports)

Credit: Tony Walsh

Georgia quarterback JT Daniels (18) during a game against South Carolina on Saturday, Nov. 28, 2020, at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia, SC. (Tony Walsh/UGA Sports)

Credit: Tony Walsh

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Georgia quarterback JT Daniels (18) during a game against South Carolina on Saturday, Nov. 28, 2020, at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia, SC. (Tony Walsh/UGA Sports)

Credit: Tony Walsh

Credit: Tony Walsh

For all Georgia knows or thinks it knows about its Cali QB, there remains some anxious questioning as to how Daniels will respond Saturday to the Bulldogs mega-opener against third-ranked Clemson. He’ll be facing another transplant from the Golden State – one he has beaten at the high school level – in Clemson’s DJ Uiagalelei. But this ain’t high school. It is the biggest test yet of all that has gone into making Daniels.

Asked how he anticipates handling the nerves that accompany a game of this magnitude, Daniels sounded so well-schooled on the psychology of the moment.

“My best way of dealing with nerves is understanding what nerves are – that’s just your body’s response to knowing you’re doing something that means something to you, something that matters,” he said. “Just breathe through it and be excited for the moment. The way you approach it with your perspective makes a big difference – the nerves are going to bring you down or help build you up.”

Just everybody chill, said the coach who has been around since Daniels’ foundation was poured.

“In honesty, I expect him to get off,” Rollinson said. “He got a little taste last year once they finally fast-forwarded him into the spot. It kind of stirred his juices again, reassured him that he can still push it upfield with the best of them, and now it’s his show.”