Bryan Harsin's next move? Go get JT Daniels
The optimist will look at Bryan Harsin’s situation and say that he suddenly has a second life at Auburn. They’ll say that alignment from Auburn’s administration and boosters is there, at least publicly, which in theory would mean that Harsin can coach his team in 2022 without constantly worrying about his job status.
The pessimist will look at Harsin’s situation and say that he’s still a dead man walking and this past week just delayed the inevitable. They’ll say that Auburn is still gonna Auburn, at least privately, which in theory would mean that Harsin is coaching his team in 2022 with constant buzz about his job status.
The realist will say that Harsin needs to figure out some things or else the pessimist is going to be heard loud and clear and 2022.
What’s the biggest thing Harsin needs to figure out? The offense. Lost in the shuffle of his week in limbo was the fact that he lost offensive coordinator Austin Davis after 6 weeks on the job. But even beyond that, Harsin has something else to figure out — the quarterback situation.
JT Daniels would solve that problem.
That’s not meant as disrespect to TJ Finley or Zach Calzada, both of whom became SEC starters as underclassmen. That’s no small feat. Perhaps their best football is still ahead. But both transferred to Auburn after underwhelming showings at their original schools. And while getting Robby Ashford from Oregon was one of Harsin’s few transfer portal victories this offseason, he has yet to play a college snap in 2 seasons.
If Harsin wants to pin his future on Ashford, Finley or Calzada, that’s on him. But if he dips back into the transfer portal and signs 1 more quarterback who lost his job as an SEC starter, it could be the thing that saves his job.
Go ask Ed Orgeron about when he did that in 2018 with Joe Burrow.
No, no, no. Relax. I’m not saying Daniels is about to deliver the best single-season in college football history and go on to become the No. 1 overall pick. Calm down.
What I am saying is that if you go back to 2018, Orgeron knew a few things. One was that he was on the hot seat entering Year 2 because an athletic director who went out on a limb to hire him had some prominent naysayers. The other was that he knew how badly his team needed to improve at quarterback, which was why he wasn’t content to put all his chips on Nowell Narcisse, Justin McMillan or redshirt freshman Myles Brennan.
Orgeron made the decision after spring to pluck Burrow. He saw someone who needed opportunity and didn’t get it at Ohio State because of a variety of factors (Burrow broke his hand the previous season and Dwayne Haskins was on his way to becoming a Heisman Trophy finalist in 2018). That decision allowed Orgeron to keep his job because LSU overcame a daunting schedule and earned its first New Year’s 6 bowl berth of the Playoff era.
Harsin, too, should make the decision to go pluck Daniels after he finishes his undergraduate degree at Georgia this spring. Harsin should see someone who also needs opportunity and didn’t get a full season of that at Georgia because of a variety of factors. The main one was that Daniels couldn’t stay healthy.
It didn’t matter to Orgeron that Narcisse and McMillan hit the transfer portal after Burrow signed with LSU. It shouldn’t matter to Harsin if he loses Ashford, Finley or Calzada (not to mention redshirt freshman Dee Davis) to the transfer portal if Daniels were to sign with Auburn.
Actually, the odds would be in Harsin’s favor to possibly retain at least 2 of those 3 former Power 5 transfers. All of them already used up their 1-time transfer exemption as undergraduates, meaning they’d have to sit at least a year if they transferred again (until they graduate). Harsin would be getting Daniels as a grad transfer to be a 1-year guy, meaning you could sell Ashford, Finley and Calzada on sticking around to battle again or perhaps take over for the oft-injured Daniels.
But this comes back to the notion that Harsin can’t afford to worry about hurt feelings at quarterback, nor can he assume that Finley or Calzada are about to turn a new leaf.
We just watched Calzada have the SEC’s No. 12 quarterback rating (123.7) among 14 qualified signal-callers, and that was with a bevy of weapons at A&M. Finley technically didn’t have enough snaps to qualify among SEC players, but his quarterback rating in 2021 was slightly worse than Calzada’s at 122.9, which was an improvement from his 118.2 quarterback rating as a true freshman at LSU in 2020. That’s for 2 quarterbacks who offer next to nothing with their legs.
Daniels is the better player. Period. In 4 games in 2020, he had the best quarterback rating against the blitz (141.8) among all returning 2021 quarterbacks (via PFF). Give Daniels time and he makes you pay. Say what you want about him being overrated as a former Gatorade National Player of the Year (as a high school junior), but we did see the promise in that limited sample size. There are very few coaches who would’ve stuck with Stetson Bennett knowing what a healthy Daniels was capable of:
#UGA QB J.T Daniels finally made his long awaited debut last night, and boy he didnt disappoint.
28/38, 401 yds, 4 TD 0 INT
— Cory P. (@FF_Guitarist) November 22, 2020
Some might say that the juice isn’t worth the squeeze with Daniels, and that his recent injury history isn’t something that a team can rely on. It’s fair to say that someone who has started no more than 4 games in any of the previous 3 seasons has to show that he can stay healthy.
But it’s also fair to say that it’s a risk worth taking for Auburn. If Daniels were to transfer to Auburn only to get hurt for a 4th consecutive season, there’s a good chance that Auburn would just turn right back to where it began the 2022 offseason.
There shouldn’t need to be much selling on Harsin’s end. As for Daniels, there are plenty of positives with Auburn, even as it’s in the midst of this bizarre situation wherein it lacks an offensive coordinator.
If he is indeed 1-and-done — my guess is that Daniels would be as someone entering Year 5 of college — he isn’t worried about whether Harsin is the long-term hire. Daniels could complement one of the top returning backfield duos in the country in Tank Bigsby and Jarquez Hunter. Instead of transferring outside the SEC, Daniels could stay in the league that he had to game plan against for the last 2 years.
And depending on how much revenge motivates Daniels, well, I’m guessing nobody would need to tell him who Auburn plays on Oct. 8.
Daniels should be looking at a Power 5 program that lacks an entrenched starter. Neither Finley nor Calzada deserves to own that title, and assuming someone like Ashford is ready to navigate the treacherous SEC waters seems ambitious at best.
Now is the time for Harsin to lay out the plan to get Daniels. For all we know, he already has and Daniels will make that decision later this spring. Recognizing that is key for a program that just finished No. 12 in the SEC in quarterback rating ahead of only A&M (led by Calzada) and Vandy.
Harsin cannot afford to be patient. If there was ever a sign that a Year 2 coach had pressure on him heading into a season, that week on The Plains was it.
Any realist would tell you that.