“Every move I've had, I've gained great friends, great people, just connecting to and have learned something about the game of football."
- Mike Daniels, Georgia Tech's running backs coach
After playing collegiately at Cincinnati in his hometown (his head coaches were Mark D’Antonio and Brian Kelly), Daniels got into coaching in 2008 at Alcorn State, moving to Cincinnati as a graduate assistant and then Buffalo (the first time) in 2010 as running backs coach.
On a recruiting trip to Georgia, among the many coaches he met was then-Statesboro High coach Steve Pennington. The two men hit it off — “I don’t think he has ever met a stranger,” Pennington said — and the two remained in touch. Daniels said a family decision led to him to return to coach high schools, and Pennington gladly hired him to coach running backs, the rare move from an FBS assistant coaching job to an assistant coaching position in high school.
“My wife (Monica) had an opportunity there to have a job there,” Daniels said.
He was in Statesboro for three years, moving from coaching running backs to running the offense. Pennington raved about him in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, praising his positive spirit, infectious energy and his success in opening up the Statesboro offense.
“So we still ran the wishbone, but then we also put in a little option game with him, as well as some spread packages,” said Pennington, who won more than 200 games (including a state title at Statesboro) in a career spanning three decades before he recently stepped down from his position at Bulloch Academy. “And so with that regard, he really helped us be a more efficient offense.”
One day, a Kennesaw State assistant visited, Pennington recalled, and Daniels began talking with him, hoping to gain more knowledge. That led to an offer to join Owls coach Brian Bohannon in starting up the FCS program.
“Dadgumit,” said Pennington.
Daniels said he thought that he would stay at the high school level, but the opportunity to help start a team from scratch — “all the way from the ability to pick what type of football we were going to use,” he said — was too great. Daniels was a college coach again.
And then after three years (2014-16, the last season with Tech defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker), high school called again. This time it was Princeton High in Cincinnati, a longtime powerhouse and, notably, the alma mater not only of Daniels but his parents and all of his aunts and uncles, Daniels said. The team needed rebuilding, and it was the chance to be a head coach. Back to high school.
In 2019, Daniels led the Vikings to the state playoffs for the first time since 2007.
“I spent four years there, and we got it back rolling,” Daniels said. “And it’s a healthy program, we sent a lot of kids to school, and so I felt my mission was done.”
And, again, back to college, although the path was typically full of bends. In the 2021 offseason, he first took a job with Army and coach Jeff Monken to work in the team’s recruiting office before Akron hired him away to be its running backs coach (he was there long enough to get to know quarterback Zach Gibson, who transferred to Tech in January), only to have Buffalo take him away from Akron.
The flurry of changes spoke to the high degree of interest in Daniels’ potential and ability, something that has been observed even at the game’s highest level. In 2020, while still at Princeton, Daniels took part in the NFL’s Bill Walsh Minority Coaching Fellowship program, which placed him with the Cincinnati Bengals. He also counts longtime NFL coach Hue Jackson as a mentor.
“He vibrates at a whole higher level from an X’s and O’s standpoint and the way his mind works,” Jackson told WCPO-TV in July 2020. “He’s doing it at the high school level, but this guy could coach anywhere.”
He was at Buffalo one season and is now at Tech.
“Every move I’ve had, I’ve gained great friends, great people, just connecting to and have learned something about the game of football,” Daniels said.
He is taking over a room that has repopulated after the transfers of Jahmyr Gibbs and Tony Amerson and Jordan Mason’s decision to turn professional. Hassan Hall has arrived as a grad transfer from Louisville, Jamious Griffin chose to come back out of the transfer portal and return to Tech and Antonio Martin arrived from Langston Hughes High as an early-enrollee signee, to be joined later by fellow signee Jamie Felix from Camden County High.
The leading returning rusher is Dontae Smith, who had 68 carries for 378 yards and four touchdowns behind Gibbs and Mason.
“He had some production last year, so you’re always looking for that next opportunity,” Daniels said. “And when you think about the natural progression in terms of the running backs, now you’ve got those two guys (Gibbs and Mason) gone, and he has an opportunity to increase his roles. I’m excited for him.”
Daniels will have the same challenge that his predecessor did in splitting up playing time between multiple deserving players. He had the same task when he was at Buffalo. Three backs split most of the carries, each gaining at least 400 yards. Two earned all-conference honors in the MAC, one as a running back and the other as a kickoff return specialist.
Daniels said his approach was to be transparent and upfront with players about their roles and try to get them to buy into the attitude of being a unified group.
“I think what you saw was a group of young men that bought into the system of how we were doing it and that way, we were able to kind of dive in and have a 1,000-yard rusher and have two other guys that touched the football significantly,” Daniels said.
As for the next step in Daniels’ career, only time can tell.
Said Pennington, “If anybody would probably have a good path as far as maybe finding the best niche, he would, because he has experienced it all.”