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Coach’s Corner: The Trials of JT Daniels

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The highly touted freshman QB has struggled to live up to the hype in his first three games.

USC v Texas Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

The buzz around USC’s newest phenom at quarterback has been non-stop since he committed to the Trojans last summer. He graduated early, showed up on campus for spring practice, and quickly won the starting job. So far, the performance on the field has not quite lived up to the hype off it, as the freshman quarterback has thrown only a single, solitary touchdown pass. The offense has scored only sixty points in its three games, forty-three of which came in their opener against UNLV. Certainly not all of that is the fault of JT Daniels. Football is a team sport, after all. But as those of us who follow Washington State football are keenly aware, the quarterback is the motor that propels the car.

So where has Daniels struggled?

There’s no questioning Daniels’ arm strength. He has the capability of making virtually every throw on the field, and he likely will develop into, at the very least, an NFL quarterback. Here he is throwing to the boundary from the opposite hash. That’s a long throw, and the ball gets there in a hurry.

The arm strength, as are the physical tools in general, and he is reasonably accurate on short-to-medium throws. He wouldn’t be named the starting quarterback at USC without the ability to make the sorts of throws needed to key the offense. But when he needs to take the top of the defense after drawing up the safeties with underneath throws, Daniels has struggled to connect with his receivers.

Some of his struggles are at the feet of Clay Helton and the offensive staff because of play design. USC has run a fair number of packaged plays, where Daniels reads the defense and determines run or pass, or sometimes which side of the field to throw to, based on leverage, alignment and coverage. That can be a lot for a true freshman to process on the fly. Here’s an example of that going wrong against Texas.

To the bottom of the screen, USC is blocking for a swing/screen to the running back, tipped off by the receivers going straight to their blocking assignments. Of course the slot receiver completely whiffs, so this would have been blown up had Daniels thrown in that direction. But to the top of the screen, the outside receiver runs a double move, trying to get vertical behind the flat corner. The problem is that the running back has vacated to the opposite side, and the slot receiver runs a slant to the middle of the field. Thus, there is no threat in the flat to hold the corner, who is in a cover 2 alignment. With no flat threat, the corner is free to jam the receiver and sit on him, then trail because he has help over the top from the safety. Daniels panicks a bit when he gets traffic at his feet, and throws it up for grabs.

The better check here, assuming it was blocked correctly, was the running back swing. The running back is locked on by a linebacker, who has to chase through the two blocking receivers. The only other unblocked defender on that side is the safety, who is twenty yards back at that point. You can just make out the USC coach to the right of the screen dropping his playcard slightly as Daniels turns to that sideline, and I can almost hear him yelling “NO NO NO!”

Daniels has also struggled on deep throws, particularly to the sideline. Again, it’s not a question of arm strength, but of timing and technique. Sometimes it’s as simple as him not resetting his feet and throwing off his back foot, costing him distance and trajectory, causing an underthrow.

It’s tough to call that an underthrow when he chucks it 40-plus yards in the air from basically the opposite hash, but the end result is that the receiver does have to slow himself down and try to play through the trailing Stanford DB.

Sometimes it’s underestimating the speed of a safety and his ability to recover and get over the top of the receiver.

Supremely lucky that one wasn’t picked. Speaking of lucky, this is still USC, and sometimes you’re just lucky enough to have gifted and talented athletes on the other side of your passes, such as Amon-Ra St. Brown. No idea how this wasn’t picked either.

There are plenty of mistakes, as is to be expected from a true freshman quarterback playing against Power 5 defenses. But when he gets a chance to put it together, Daniels delivers the mail.

I’m glad we face him as a freshman and that he then rotates off the schedule for the next two years, because he will be a high-caliber player before he’s done in Los Angeles. The question, come Friday night at 7:30, will be whether JT Daniels will have worked out the kinks in his deep passing game and will be able to hurt the Cougar defense over the top. If he has, USC might finally break out and get their offense untracked. If he hasn’t, the Cougs should be able to snag a turnover or two through the air, giving the ball back to Gardner Minshew and company who, when they are clicking, are tough enough to stop without giving them extra possessions.