JT Daniels era begins at quarterback for Georgia Bulldogs

Credit: Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com

ATHENS -- The JT Daniels era at Georgia began Saturday. The question now is how long it might last.

Daniels, a sophomore quarterback from Irvine, Calif., made his first start with the Bulldogs. It was the 13th start of Daniels’ college football career, the first 12 of those occurring while he was playing at Southern Cal.

Determined to keep his starting quarterback a secret, coach Kirby Smart finally acknowledged it on the Bulldogs’ pregame radio show about 15 minutes kickoff against Mississippi State.

“I think everybody knows who’s going to start at quarterback tonight,” Smart told UGA sideline reporter Chuck Dowdle.

Daniels’ first action for the No. 13 Bulldogs (4-2) came against a short-handed opponent at Sanford Stadium. The Maroon Bulldogs (2-4) traveled with just 49 scholarship players, 59 overall. That technically put them below the SEC’s threshold of 53 mandating play, but coach Mike Leach’s team elected to play.

That should be helpful to a quarterback seeing his first game action in 14 months. Daniels had not played since suffering a torn ACL in his right knee late in the second quarter of the Trojans’ 2019 season opener against Fresno State. At the time, he had completed 25 of 34 passes for 215 yards, a touchdown and one interception. Freshman Kedon Slovis took over the rest of the season, played well and was going into USC’s spring practice as the No. 1 quarterback. That spring practice never happened as the pandemic shut down college athletics in mid-March.

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Daniels transferred to UGA in late May and was granted eligibility over the summer. But his knee injury required a second, minor surgery in January. He was not medically cleared to play by UGA until Sept. 28, the Monday after Georgia’s season opener at Arkansas, and has not played in a game.

“I don’t what has held him back,” said Bruce Rollinson, Daniels’ coach at Mater Dei High in California. “I’m sure they just weren’t confident in his physical abilities. But I guarantee you, he probably has the playbook memorized front to back and has been offering suggestions on what they should be doing.”

The 6-foot-3, 210-pound sophomore got the nod Saturday over five-game starter Stetson Bennett and one-game starter D’Wan Mathis. It’s the first time since 2006 when Matthew Stafford, Joe Cox and Joe Tereshinki all got turns that Georgia has started three different quarterbacks in the same season.

Daniels threw his first touchdown as a Bulldog at teh 12:28 mark of the second quarter when he rolled right on third-and-goal and hit receiver George Rogers on the right side of the end zone. It was Daniels’ first TD in 14 months. He was 6-of-8 for 63 yards passing at that point.

Daniels earned the start during the two weeks of practices since the Bulldogs last played against Florida. Georgia’s quarterback play was notoriously poor in that Nov. 7 game and the two games before, which reignited the competition for the final stretch of the regular season. Sources close to with the situation confirmed that Daniels was set to start last Saturday’s game against Missouri. That contest was postponed Nov. 11 because of COVID-19 infections and contact-tracing.

The main issue is the Bulldogs’ enter their game against Mississippi State (2-4) ranked 80th in total offense, 87th in passing and 113th of 126 FBS teams in completion percentage. But the pressure to put Daniels on the field mounted after Bennett suffered a sprained AC joint in his throwing shoulder in the Florida game. That kept the fourth-year junior out of practice all last week. Bennett returned to Woodruff Practice Fields this week and was able to compete at full speed by midweek.

Georgia players decidedly stayed out of the controversy.

“We just have to make sure that whoever we’re going to rock with has got confidence in themselves,” junior running back James Cook said. “They just need to do the best job that they can do, and we’ll (have) their back and be with them every step of the way.”

Daniels may be rusty, but he has a lot of experience. He played 742 snaps with the Trojans and started every game he played as a 17-year-old freshman in 2018. The results were mixed. He completed 59.5% of his passes for 2,672 yards and 14 touchdowns but also had 10 interceptions. USC went 5-7 and 4-5 in Pac-12 play.

One of Daniels’ starts was against Leach’s Washington State team. The Trojans won 39-36 on a last-second field goal and Daniels went 17-of-26 for 241 yards and three touchdowns without and interception.

How long Daniels plans might stick around Georgia is unknown. He has not been available for interviews since arriving in the middle of the pandemic this summer. As a third-year sophomore, he will be draft-eligible after this season. Georgia’s other three scholarship quarterbacks return next season. The Bulldogs’ currently have a commitment from 5-star prospect Brock Vandagriff of Bogart.

Daniels had an extremely high recruiting profile coming out of high school as well. After passing for 12,014 yards and 152 touchdowns and 14 interceptions as a three-year at Mater Dei, he was ranked the No. 2 quarterback prospect in the country by both 247Sports and Rivals.