JT Daniels gives USC some Sam Darnold insurance for 2018 expectations

Harry How/Getty Images
Harry How/Getty Images /

The fate of the 2018 USC football team has long been linked to the status of Sam Darnold. But JT Daniels might just change that.

Going into the 2017 season, it appeared as though the Trojans’ window for contending at the national level was closing. Quarterback Sam Darnold was projected to be an early favorite for the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, and the rest of the fruits of an absurd 2015 recruiting class were blossoming.

Without Darnold, and with a potential mass exodus of stars seemingly on the precipice of leaving after the year, the 2018 season screamed of being reloading period.

But maybe that’s changed.

Not only because of the strong play of the Trojans’ youngsters on offense and wait-and-see vibe surrounding so many of the draft-eligible juniors —Darnold included— but the pending early arrival of JT Daniels.

The five-star Mater Dei quarterback and Trojan commit is reclassifying and now set to be on USC’s campus this upcoming fall.

His placement on the roster helps ensure the window’s openness is no longer strictly tied to Darnold opting to return for a senior season.

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By no means should you ever bank on a true freshman quarterback playing the role of hero, much less contending for championships. But a player of Daniels’ caliber gives the Trojans a chance they wouldn’t have otherwise.

Georgia just made the College Football Playoff with true freshman Jake Fromm. Last year, Alabama’s Jalen Hurts not only led the Tide to a 52-6 pummeling of the Trojans in his first-ever game —a win spurred on by his unveiling— but was literally one second away from winning a national title as a true freshman.

They each did it by serving as the final piece to the puzzle, rather than the cog in the machine. Great defenses, running backs and playmakers around a quarterback can do that.

While USC’s defense isn’t all-world in the way Georgia and Alabama’s have played recently, they consistently do enough to win, especially given the wealth of talent the Trojans have on offense.

A player of Daniels’ caliber gives the Trojans a chance they wouldn’t have otherwise.

The 2018 receiving corps could ultimately be the most talented ever, led by Michael Pittman, Tyler Vaughns, Joseph Lewis and if all things go in their favor, Deontay Burnett and Daniels’ Mater Dei teammate Amon-Ra St. Brown.

Stephen Carr is in the driver’s seat at running back and has shown plenty of flashes to replace the impending departure of Ronald Jones II. Vavae Malepeai and Aca’Cedric Ware are more than capable alongside him.

On the offensive line, a wealth of injuries up front in 2017 meant sooner-than-expected development for Andrew Vorhees, Austin Jackson and Clayton Johnston, giving them valuable experience. Even with Chuma Edoga, Chris Brown and Toa Lobendahn each being toss-ups for leaping to the NFL, the chances are the Trojans’ line is roughly on the same level as this year’s, which was good enough to win the Pac-12 for first time since 2008.

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The pieces are there so that Daniels doesn’t have to be the guy.

But his skyscraper ceiling as a passer —combined with newfound swiftness out of the pocket and a maturity recruiting analysts have raved about for years— would give a hypothetical USC offense sans Darnold a gear that neither Matt Fink or Jack Sears could replicate in Year 1 as a starter.

Alicia de Artola/Reign of Troy
Alicia de Artola/Reign of Troy /

Both of the Trojans’ reserve quarterbacks are works in progress —in two different ways— and both have a noticeably reduced ceiling in comparison. Fink is a dual-threat game manager who won the backup job in fall camp, while Sears is a talented but rather raw playmaker still working out the kinks at the collegiate level.

Daniels, even as a would-be high school senior, is a more complete quarterback and could be ahead of both come the end of the fall camp, if not now.

He was the Gatorade National Player of the Year as a junior, during a campaign that saw him post an obscene 49-to-4 touchdowns-to-interceptions ratio against one of the nation’s toughest schedules. He threw for 3,890 yards. But most importantly, his acclaim goes beyond the numbers and big arm.

“Daniels’ advanced feel in the pocket, football IQ, ability to call protections, read coverages and understand a complex playbook is at a college level already,” says Greg Biggins of 247Sports and Scout.

“The mental aspect of football excites him,” Mater Dei head coach Bruce Rollinson told ESPN in February after Daniels’ sophomore season. “He loves the strategy within the game. That’s what separates him from some of your other star high school quarterbacks. Barkley and Leinart, they were that way as seniors.”

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Physical tools. Intangibles. Promise. All of it backs Daniels early, just like a familiar quarterback.

In 2015, UCLA’s Josh Rosen received comparable fanfare. What’d he do as a true freshman? He immediately coasted to the top of a similarly structured Bruins’ depth chart at quarterback, beating out a Fink (Jerry Neuheisel) and a Sears (Asiantii Woulard).

To his credit, Rosen had the advantage of enrolling early for spring practice in Westwood, a factor Daniels won’t have. The soon-to-be-Trojan will remain at Mater Dei this spring to finish his course load.

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But don’t count him out of usurping Fink and Sears quickly. And if his game translates to the next level as rapidly as it’s been anointed, he’s the insurance the Trojans need for the potential loss of Darnold.

With Daniels, should defensive stalwarts like Cameron Smith, Porter Gustin and Rasheem Green return for their senior seasons, buckle up for another exhausting offseason of USC hype, with or without Darnold.

They won’t —and shouldn’t be— favored to win or make the College Football Playoff off the cuff. But Daniels presence in the mix at quarterback means they should be the Pac-12’s cream of the crop.

For a team so often reduced to the presence of their talisman wearing No. 14, potency with or without him is a good place to be.

Daniels is the peace of mind making it so. Not because he’s ring leader, but a potential cherry on top to a loaded USC offense in 2018.