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Will JT Daniels get the chance to start for USC in 2020?

Will JT Daniels get the chance to start for USC in 2020?
Aug 31, 2019; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Southern California Trojans quarterback JT Daniels (18) throws a pass against the Fresno State Bulldogs during the first quarter at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

One of the more interesting cases among the college quarterbacks for the 2020 season is going to be around who should start at the quarterback position for USC between JT Daniels and last year’s freshman sensation, Kedon Slovis. Daniels entered 2019 as the starter, but a torn ACL in Week 1 gave Slovis a chance, and he did not look back. Now, Daniels will have to work hard this summer to earn his job back. The big question – can he do it and be under center when the 2020 season kicks off in just a few months?

Daniels has a strong pedigree

Daniels came to USC in 2018 and immediately became the starter after his sensational high school career. That career included throwing for over 12,000 yards in three years at Mater Dei High School, including a perfect 15-0 record as he won a state championship in his junior year. Daniels was so impressive in high school that he graduated a year early and reclassified to the 2018 class.

“I just felt like I was ready for the next challenge,” Daniels told 247Sports back in 2017. “I’ve started 40 games at the varsity level in the toughest league in the country, and I didn’t think I needed another year of high school football. My best friends are in the 2018 class, those are the guys I grew up playing with and I wanted to graduate with them and start the next chapter of my life. It wasn’t an easy decision, but I think I’m ready for it.”

Once arriving at USC, Daniels quickly earned the starting job for the Trojans and had a mixed freshman season. He played in 11 games, throwing for 2,672 yards with 14 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. The touchdown-to-interception ratio and the sub-60% completion rate may not have been the greatest, but freshman years are more about the experience than the performance to some extent. Unfortunately, the season opener against Fresno State would also be his last action of the 2019 season.

Daniels remains committed to USC

There was some belief that Daniels would transfer away from USC after the emergence of Slovis in 2019. After Daniels’ injury, Slovis threw for 3,502 yards with 30 touchdowns and just nine interceptions. When you compare the two freshman seasons, it is easy to see why Daniels might be considering moving. However, Daniels’ dad, Steve, told 247 Sports about his son’s decision to stay:

“JT is definitely staying. He’s happy for Clay (Helton) and has a great relationship with him, but to be honest, no matter what happened with the coaching situation, JT was going to stay and compete. He loves it at SC, he has an SC tattoo on his leg, so he’s pretty committed to the program.

“He’s a very competitive kid and has never run from a challenge before. Kedon played really well, and JT was happy for him, but at the same time, JT is a competitor, and once he’s back to 100%, he wants to compete for that job.”

Tough decisions are coming in Southern California

This is where the case now becomes very interesting for the Trojans and for Daniels. USC is obviously fortunate enough to have two very good quarterbacks on their roster and will eventually be faced with a tough decision on who to start.

Unfortunately for Daniels, football is typically a game of “what have you done for me lately,” and lately, for the Trojans, we watched Slovis look incredible. Quarterback wins aren’t the be-all, end-all factor, but the results for the seasons can’t be argued. The Trojans went 5-7 in 2018 with Daniels and 8-4 in 2019 under Slovis with a berth in the Holiday Bowl as well.

That’s not going to stop Daniels from competing, however. The kid is clearly a fighter. He had an opportunity to go away from USC and he chose to stick it out. At the very least, he’s definitely dedicated to the school and has to be commended for that.

However, with the way Slovis led the offense in 2019 and made the offense more explosive, Daniels is going to have his work cut out for him this summer. By many accounts, Slovis’ play last season is the biggest reason Helton is still the head coach at USC. How does a head coach bench the guy that kept him in a job?

In 2019, Slovis posted five games with at least 350 yards passing, with four of those games being at least 400 passing yards and even one game where he eclipsed 500 yards. That outstanding performance came in the regular-season finale against UCLA, where Slovis went 37/47 for 515 yards and four touchdowns.

On the flip side, Daniels went through 2018 with just three games over 300 yards, though he did save his best performance for last. He went 37/51 for 349 yards and a touchdown in the Trojans’ final game of the season against Notre Dame.

Daniels had four games out of 11 with multiple passing touchdowns, but the final game, despite throwing just one touchdown, started to show some promise from Daniels and what he could do in the USC offense with Helton.

However, Slovis had just two games where he did not throw at least two touchdown passes, and he had four games where he had four touchdown passes. While Daniels flashed potential in 2018, Slovis demonstrated it regularly.

What could 2020 mean for Daniels’ future?

Before the injury, Daniels was considered among the top quarterbacks in the 2021 NFL Draft. While he would have slotted in behind Trevor Lawrence, he would likely have been considered in the group with Justin Fields of Ohio State, Sam Ehlinger of Texas, and Kellen Mond of Texas A&M.

At this point, even if Daniels starts in 2020, there is a good chance he will come back for his senior season to get more work in. If he loses or fails to regain the starting role, then he could enter the transfer portal next year. In either of those cases, Daniels would then be expected to enter the NFL Draft in 2022, where he could potentially be up against the likes of Sam Howell of North Carolina, Tyler Shough of Oregon, and his old friend, Kedon Slovis.

Lawrence and Fields will be the headliners of the 2020 college season at the quarterback position, but there won’t be too many better storylines entering the season than Daniels versus Slovis for the starting quarterback position at USC. We’ll get our first chance to see this battle up close will be at USC’s Spring Game, which takes place on Saturday, April 11, at 3:00 pm EST.

Whoever gets the nod has quite the first test in 2020. The Trojans open next season against Alabama in Arlington, Texas, and you know the Crimson Tide are going to enter 2020 angry after missing the playoffs last season.

Let’s hope this matchup goes a lot better than the last time these two teams met back in 2016 when Jalen Hurts threw for two touchdowns and rushed for two more in a 52-6 stomping of the Trojans, also in Arlington.

If Daniels does win the job this summer, he is going to have a very early opportunity to put himself in the conversation as a 2021 NFL Draft prospect.

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