Q&A: QB JT Daniels on why he came to UGA and hadn’t played

Credit: Georgia Bulldogs

Georgia quarterback JT Daniels comments on his debut in Athens, a 400-yard passing performance and 31-24 win over Mississippi State.

Credit: Georgia Bulldogs

ATHENS — If Georgia is your team, then your reaction to JT Daniels’ performance against Mississippi State Saturday night is probably mixed.

On one hand, you’re thinking, “great, we’ve finally found a quarterback that can spin the football a little.” But then you probably also catch yourself wondering, “hasn’t he been here all along?” And then, “we sure could’ve used this guy two weeks ago in Jacksonville.”

Georgia coach Kirby Smart is torn, too. He knows it was a savvy move even to consider recruiting Daniels out of the transfer portal from USC back in May. But he also knows after Saturday’s 401-yard, 4-touchdown passing performance by Daniels that he probably should’ve played the guy before the seventh game of the season.

So, Smart was a little defensive following the Bulldogs’ 31-24 victory.

“Let’s not make the discussion all about that,” Smart said why Daniels hadn’t played sooner. “Let’s make the discussion about how well JT handled (his situation) in a world where nobody handles things very well when they don’t get what they want. … He came down (to scout team) and went every day against what I think is a pretty good defense and made plays. He moved around in the pocket and he started showing us, ‘hey, I can do this thing.’ He took the bull by the horns and he took advantage of it tonight.”

In a nutshell, Smart explained that Daniels got snaps with the number one and two offenses in preseason camp, but actually didn’t perform very well. Meanwhile, Daniels still was not medically cleared at that point from a knee injury. So after Jamie Newman opted out, the Bulldogs decided they needed to deploy a mobile quarterback that could avoid pressure and create some run game behind a young, rebuilt offensive line.

Hence, Georgia went with D’Wan Mathis and Stetson Bennett. Smart argued that Bennett, who took over after the first game, actually played pretty well until he took a shot on the shoulder at the end of 37-yard touchdown pass in the Florida game.

“Then it all went downhill,” he said.

That’s when Smart and offensive coordinator Todd Monken turned their attention back to Daniels. The sophomore transfer from USC actually had been medically cleared for more than a month when he was moved off the scout team and allowed to work with the No. 1 offense again. Daniels reportedly impressed everyone immediately.

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“He practiced the way he played tonight, honestly,” junior tackle Jamaree Salyer said. “The way y’all saw the ball pop out today is the same routes I saw in practice, the same progressions. Good arm, good talent.”

Said receiver Kearis Jackson, who had four catches, including the game-winning, 40-yard touchdown: “I really wasn’t too surprised because what you do in practice you’ll do in the game. This week we were slinging it around pretty good and we were able to showcase that tonight.”

That they did. Daniels’ 28-for-38 passing performance — which included a few drops — was the best of his career, which includes 12 starts at USC.

In his first interview with Georgia-based reporters after the game Saturday, Daniels was asked to fill in some of the blanks about his decision to come UGA and why it took so long to see him play in a game.

On why it took so long for him to get the opportunity to play …

Daniels: “You said it right there, that is not my decision. I’ve been getting healthy and getting as many reps as I can with the scout team, trying to get with the receivers as much as I can, making sure I know the playbook and just getting ready. It feels really good, this is the first time I’ve taken a (game) snap since Aug. 31, 2019, in another part of the country. So, I really couldn’t be happier and more appreciative to coach Smart, coach Monken and the team.”

On when he felt comfortable and confident enough to play …

Daniels: “I really haven’t had much struggle with confidence in my knee. To be honest with you, I think some of that comes from playing the quarterback position, not being asked to do too much, especially right knee, my back knee, to be in much discomfort or to be in a position where I could potentially hurt it gain. It’s just been a progression over time, feeling a lot better. I feel really good right now in terms of knee health and overall body health.”

On emotions as he lined up the offense in victory formation …

Daniels: “It started to sink in a little bit. It still really hasn’t yet, that I got to play football again. I really just felt a lot of gratitude for my family, for this team, for this coaching staff, for everyone for really helping me get back on my feet and play football again.”

Bulldogs quarterback JT Daniels (18) competes a pass on their second possession against Mississippi State Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020, at Sanford Stadium in Athens. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)
Bulldogs quarterback JT Daniels (18) competes a pass on their second possession against Mississippi State Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020, at Sanford Stadium in Athens. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

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

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

On whether he imagined anything as spectacular as 401 yards and 4 TDs in his first action in 14 months …

Daniels: “Absolutely. it’s something you visualize and dream about, putting up good numbers, it’s great and all, it’s something you want to do. We weren’t even paying attention to the numbers or any of that, it was just executing what coach Monken called, and I think he dialed up a phenomenal game plan. The receivers did a great job of winning, and the whole O-line, starting with Trey Hill calling out the protections and helping me out, kept the whole thing going. It was just a great job from all of us.”

On what brought him to Georgia, the offense or the opportunity to win big …

Daniels: “Both of those, absolutely. I think coach Smart is all about winning no matter what. It’s something I really respect. I think he does so much, himself, for the team. He’s completely selfless. He is here to help us win games and achieve our goals, so that’s one thing. Two, I absolutely love the state of Georgia. I had been in the South one time for the Manning Passing Academy and I fell in love with it when I was down in Louisiana. Then coach Monken’s offense, just talking to him through Zoom when I was in the transfer portal, I knew he was a guy I’d love to play for.”

On throwing deep so often Saturday …

Daniels: “On film, we’ve been such a great run team, and I think we had to prove ourselves in the pass game a little bit. They played a little more Cover Zero with no safeties, they played a little more man. I think it was their emphasis to try to stop Zeus and Cook from taking it up on them. But, no, I did not think we would have to come out and be throwing the ball that much. But that’s football, you play the game, see what their game plan is and what they are trying to stop, and then you counter it.”

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On the seriousness of his right knee injury …

Daniels: “I did not think it was the end all be all. Just thankful that I do get to play football. It’s been a long time since I’ve taken a game snap. It feels great to do it again.”

On whether fans should expect 400-yard games every week …

Daniels: “We love putting up good numbers. If the situation presents itself, I’ll throw George the ball, I’ll throw Kearis the ball, D-Rob, all of them. I’ll throw them the ball every time. But if you get a team playing soft, I have no problem giving Zamir and Cook the ball, and Kenny and Kendall and all those guys the ball every single play.”

On confidence they could throw deep on Mississippi State …

Daniels: “It was definitely something I saw. They were trying to send more pressure. They were playing more one-high and zero-high than they had shown on film. If you have George Pickens and Jermaine Burton, if you’re not going to throw it up to them, don’t recruit them. George made me look good, Jermaine made me look good, Kearis makes me look really good when I under throw a deep ball down the middle and he makes a great play. If you are giving one-on-one with George, Kearis and Jermaine, all our guys, I’m probably going to try to make you show me you can stop it.”

On the 28-yard pass to Pickens on the second play from scrimmage …

Daniels: “That was huge. That really was it, getting your first hit, and throwing your first stupid throw. And that’s what it was. It was a dumb throw and it almost got picked. And then I got hit and I was like, ‘OK, it’s football again.’ ”

On he didn’t play earlier this season …

Daniels: “I was not cleared for the Arkansas game Other than that, that’s really coach decision-based.”

On Newman opting out …

Daniels: “I think Jamie’s decision was separate, I can’t speak on it. I don’t know everything about it. I did not look into that like something happened to me. I was not cleared for Arkansas and that was all coach Smart’s decision.”

Georgia wide receiver Jermaine Burton (7) celebrates with quarterback JT Daniels (18) after scoring a TD near the end of the half against Mississippi State Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020, at Sanford Stadium in Athens.    (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)
Georgia wide receiver Jermaine Burton (7) celebrates with quarterback JT Daniels (18) after scoring a TD near the end of the half against Mississippi State Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020, at Sanford Stadium in Athens. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

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

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

On his connection with Georgia’s receivers …

Daniels: “I had not thrown with those guys for a little while. But when you have guys like George and Kearis and Jermaine, you know they’re guys that are going to be in the spot they’re supposed to be. It’s not really as much of having to have a million throws with them. I trust them to be in the right spot and it’s my job to put it in the right spot.”

On when he felt ready to play this season …

Daniels: I really appreciate Ron Courson, our head of training, because he really did wait until I was ready to play. I’d say as soon as I got cleared, I was ready to go out and play football. But, absolutely, I’ve progressed a good amount since then And we’re still progressing every week to try to get to full strength and full health back.”

On when he was told he was starting Saturday …

Daniels: “I got called in on Monday and (Smart) just said, ‘we’re going to give you a shot; we’re going to go with you.’ And that was the end of that. So, you know, we go from there.”

On when playing felt normal again …

Daniels: “I’d say after that (first) drive, everything kind of settled in. They were playing very similar to what we saw on film in terms of the looks that we’d seen. We had a great game plan for it. I had my bad plays; ‘time to move on.’”

On his Georgia teammates …

Daniels: “Oh, they were tremendous, especially Stetson and Carson (Beck) and D’Wan (Mathis) and really all the guys. It’s really a phenomenal quarterback room to be a part of. I think everyone’s really supportive of each other. All four of us want the team to win before we want anything else. And Stetson and I have been really good friends since I got here. I really appreciate him. I’m always there to help him out and he was there to help me out the whole night.”

On the two drops before the winning TD pass …

Daniels: “It was really just ‘next play.’ It’s not something you think about. You didn’t come up with two plays in a row. As soon as it happens you think, ‘damn, I wish that would’ve happened.’ But I really try to focus on staying neutral, you know, not getting too down on ourselves, not too up, not being overly positive for no reason. My thoughts were purely on the coverage, the play, best look, best probability, and I threw it up to Kearis.”

On whether zero coverage surprised him on final score …

Daniels: “I’m not going to say I was surprised. I’d seen Cover Zero; Mississippi State has shown it, not only then. It’s something you see a decent amount. You’ll get cover zero trying to get you to just throw the ball out of your hands really quickly and get off the field. So, it wasn’t too surprising. But I knew what we had called, so, when I saw the zero shell, I was real excited because I knew we were about to score.”

On how much latitude he has to change plays …

Daniels: “I’d like to say pretty much anytime I want – within the system. So, we have certain plays that are called checks, we have certain things where if you get this look, check to this. I think coach Monken gives all of us freedom to put us in the right play. He’s all about having quarterbacks enhance the play. There’s only so much that he can do in calling a play before we see the defense. So he loves to have a quarterback that can see the defense and fix whatever needs to be fixed.”

On playing at Sanford Stadium vs. a Pac-12 venue …

“I really can’t judge too much because we’re not anywhere close to full capacity with everything going on. But I can’t say enough about how great the fanbase here is. They’ve been super great with me. Wish I got to meet more of them this year. But it’s such a great experience, what we do in the fourth quarter with the red lights and everything. I absolutely love it here.”

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