|No. 15 USC debuts freshman QB J.T. Daniels vs. UNLV|
Under different circumstances, the newly named starting quarterback of No. 15-ranked USC, J.T. Daniels, would be preparing for a game Friday night against La Mirada High School.
Instead, Daniels' decision to reclassify from the 2019 recruiting class and leave Mater Dei High School has him now prepping to make his collegiate debut Saturday against UNLV at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
"The thing J.T. did a really good job of is, when the ball was put down in our live-game scrimmage situations, the ball moved -- and it looked easy for him," said USC coach Clay Helton of Daniels, who becomes the first true freshman to start at quarterback for the Trojans since Matt Barkley in 2009.
Barkley also came to USC via nearby Mater Dei and held the starting job through 2012.
In another coincidental twist, Daniels' Mater Dei teammates fared well without the new Trojans quarterback last week against Las Vegas Bishop Gorman, winning 42-0. UNLV coach Tony Sanchez previously led Bishop Gorman before taking the college opening just a few miles down the road.
"Known coach Sanchez for a long time, and really proud of what he's been able to accomplish, both at the high school level and at the college level," said Helton, who as a USC assistant during Sanchez's tenure at Bishop Gorman, established a working relationship with the Rebels coach.
Referencing the strides UNLV has made as Sanchez enters his fourth season at the helm, Helton cited three losses by a combined 14 points, which effectively denied the Rebels a bowl bid.
With a background coaching both high school and college, Sanchez has his own, unique perspective on the challenges a first-timer like Daniels faces.
"He's a freshman, and it is college football, so the game's going to be a little faster," Sanchez said. "He'll be ready, but he's still young and there's still a little bit of a learning curve."
UNLV quarterback Armani Rogers understands the position in which Daniels finds himself on Saturday. Rogers started from Game 1 a season ago as a freshman, and despite the benefit of a redshirt season, still faced initial growing pains.
Once he settled in, Rogers finished with 1,471 yards passing and six touchdowns, and another 780 yards rushing with eight scores. He said the lumps taken and lessons learned in Year 1 have him feeling more comfortable ahead of his sophomore campaign.
"It's a big difference. You know what to expect, you know the defenses, you know how to watch film," he said. "It's a lot different type of preparing from what I did last year and what I'm doing now. It's (about) being more mature."
Rogers played his high school ball at Los Angeles Hamilton, garnering some recruiting interest from Pac-12 programs Cal, UCLA and Utah, before landing at UNLV. He was also on USC's radar, and Helton remains impressed with the quarterback's progress into this second season.
"You look at the run-threat that he is, and how big and physical of a man he is, it just jumps off the film," Helton said of the 6-foot-6 Rogers. "With him and (running back) Lexington (Thomas) back there, you're talking about 2,100 rushing yards between the two and the 16th-best rushing offense in the country last year."
"I've been so impressed with him not only as a runner, but his ability to create in the passing game," added Helton. "You see how many yards he picks up when things break down, and that's a great luxury to have."
Indeed, it's a luxury USC had most of the previous two seasons with Sam Darnold at quarterback. The current New York Jets quarterback's ability to salvage possessions, escaping would-be tacklers and finding open teammates on seemingly busted plays, became a defining hallmark for the Trojans in 2017.
Emulating Darnold's contributions might be a big ask of Daniels, at least initially. Just how much responsibility Helton and offensive coordinator Tee Martin decide to give the freshman quarterback impacts UNLV's approach.
"It'll be interesting to see how they use (Daniels)," Sanchez said. "Are they going to run their stuff and throw it around the yard? Are they going to try to protect him a little bit and run the football?"
Certainly, it's a different pregame forecast than if Daniels was preparing to face La Mirada.