HOOVER, Ala. — It must have been a particularly strong SEC Football Media Days debut for Georgia quarterback JT Daniels. At the end of the day, he emerged as a new Heisman Trophy favorite.
Well, at least according to the Internet oddsmaker betonline.ag. Six months after breaking onto that group’s board with fairly decent odds at 12 to 1, the fourth-year junior and four-game starter for the Bulldogs emerged with top billing Tuesday at 5/1.
That moved Daniels ahead of Oklahoma’s Spencer Rattler (7/1), Alabama’s Bryce Young (10/1), Ohio State’s CJ Stroud (10/1) and Clemson’s DJ Uiagalelei (11/1).
Just as interesting, Daniels not only knows most of those players, but has a personal relationship with many of them. At one point or another, he’s either played against or hung with the majority of 2021′s top odds-getters. That includes North Carolina’s Sam Howell (14/1), Ole Miss’s Matt Corral (16/1) and USC’s Kedon Slovis (16/1).
Quite notably, Daniels and Georgia will go head-to-head against Uiagalelei and Clemson in what is anticipated as a top-5 matchup in the Dukes Mayo Classic on Sept. 4 in Charlotte.
“DJ and I played against each other twice in high school,” said Daniels, a native of Irvine, Calif., who transferred to Georgia from USC last summer. “We were each other’s rivals. I was in my last year when he was a sophomore. His first high school start, I’m almost positive, was against me. DJ and I are good friends. I like DJ a lot, a really good player and a really good person.”
It’s like the famous “six degrees of separation game” that people like to play with actor Kevin Bacon in Hollywood. That is, you can find a connection between Daniels and most of the top quarterbacks in college football. Daniels starred in high school at the famous football powerhouse Mater Dei High in Santa Ana, Calif. He emerged from there as a 5-star recruiting prospect and one of the most sought-after high school quarterbacks in the country before reclassifying after his junior season and signing with Southern Cal.
Daniels started every game he played for the Trojans, becoming the second quarterback in school history to start his first college game, joining Matt Barkley. But Daniels suffered a season-ending knee injury midway through USC’s first game of his sophomore season. By the time the year was over, Slovis had established himself as the Trojans’ starter. Slovis remains the man at USC heading into this season.
So that’s how he knows him. He’s also good friends with Corral, who many here at SEC Media Days this week have identified as the league’s top quarterback. Daniels and Corral met in middle school.
“Matt and I did (a Football University) camp together,” Daniels said. “I came there and thought I was going to be by far the strongest, biggest arm. I had a good arm when I was a seventh grader, but that dude Matt rips it, like, as a seventh grader. I thought he was a high schooler. He’s just always had a cannon. We became buddies instantly. Honestly, we’ve been good friends since then.”
Daniels can go on and on when it comes to these high-profile quarterback connections. Alabama’s Young succeeded him at Mater Dei, Stroud played nearby in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.
“From probably a 40-, 50-mile area, you’ve got C.J. Stroud at Ohio State, Matt at Ole Miss, Bryce, DJ -- there’s a lot of guys from that area,” Daniels said. “Just a really good couple of classes, I guess. But in terms of Bryce, he’s a stud; he’s a star player. I had known Bryce since he was an eighth grader or seventh grader. I knew back then that he was a special player.”
Oddsmakers seem to agree all these Californians are good players because they’re crowding the top of their Heisman boards. North Carolina’s Howell is on all those lists as well. Daniels knows him because they both recently signed name, image and likeness deals with ESM, a rapidly growing sports marketing firm out of Greenville, S.C.
But the Georgia Bulldogs clearly are glad to have Daniels calling the offensive shots for them. After struggling to get healthy most of last season, Daniels’ took over the Bulldogs’ struggling offense in Game 7 of a pandemic-shortened, 10-game season. Daniels completed 67.23% of his passes and averaged 307.8 yards passing game while leading the Bulldogs to a 4-0 record in his four starts.
Daniels actually had gotten to take over the week before. But the Bulldogs’ game against Missouri was postponed because of COVID-19 issues with the Tigers. So that gave Daniels an extra week with the No. 1 unit before getting his first game action in Sanford Stadium.
“It was easier in the game just because I’d been going against Georgia’s defense,” said Daniels, who threw for 401 yards and four touchdowns in his UGA debut. “Going against Georgia’s No. 1 defense every single day, I was already used to speed of the game.”
Such a performance on short notice is what has coach Kirby Smart and the Bulldogs so excited about what Daniels might be able to do after a whole year of working with offensive coordinator Todd Monken and Georgia’s receiving corps.
“Well, when he was pressed into action, it was more about physical than it was mental because mentally, this guy loves it,” Smart said at SEC Media Days on Tuesday. “He’s all on top of it. Even when he wasn’t playing, he was into the game plan. He’s very diligent about his intelligence and the things he works on. So, I don’t know that there’s a huge amount of improvement laid out there for him in terms of that. But the rest of the guys around him, that’s the limitation on your offense. What does Arian (Smith) know? What does Jermaine Burton know? What does Darnell (Washington) know? … JT knows; it’s not enough for him to know it. But I think physically he has improved himself with strength, weight, mobility. Those are the things that he’s really grown in since the end of the season.”
Suddenly, Daniels finds himself at the top of the heap in discussions about 2021 college quarterbacks. He’s already rolling like a big-timer. This summer he took nine of his Georgia teammates back home to give them a taste of the West Coast and get in a little work on the hillside football fields of southern California.
For whatever reason, that area seems to produce some of the country’s best quarterbacks. Las Vegas says it has this year, with Georgia’s Daniels, for the time being at least, above them all.
But Daniels knows he has to prove that on the field. He’s looking forward to finally get to do that before packed SEC stadiums.
“The one time I really experienced noise was at Texas my freshman year,” Daniels said. “That was 104,000. It was packed; it was ridiculous. … But I’m more excited for the noise. I miss it. I can’t wait to see what Sanford’s like when it’s packed.”
He will soon enough. But not until after battling with his buddy DJ at 75,000-seat Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte. That crowd figures to be half-and-half.