First impressions matter, and JT Daniels made quite a strong one in his Georgia debut
Let’s put aside the fact that Mississippi State had 49 available scholarship players available for Saturday’s game against Georgia.
Forget that Georgia managed just 8 rushing yards all game, or that Mississippi State’s Will Rogers threw for 336 yards, or that the offensive playcalling was puzzling at times.
Most of all, forget that the Bulldogs — the ones from Starkville — were nearly able to make the trip back to Mississippi with an upset win.
No, this is about JT Daniels. A 401-yard, 4-touchdown performance later, and it appears that after 2 swings and misses this year, the Dawgs have a quarterback who can take them places.
"JT! JT! JT!"
Georgia fans chant for their new starting QB. pic.twitter.com/1gQP10WwWP
— DawgPost (@Dawg_Post) November 22, 2020
I get it. It’s Mississippi State, a team that had allowed 2 300-yard-plus passing games already, was light on numbers coming in and has failed to truly set sail under Mike Leach as his “my way or the highway” approach has led to more than a little roster attrition.
But let’s tip our caps to Daniels, who became the 1st Georgia quarterback to throw for more than 400 yards since Aaron Murray in 2013. To compare, Kyle Trask and Mac Jones have combined for 5 games of more than 400 yards passing this season. Joe Burrow had 4 all to himself in 2019.
Did I mention that Daniels hadn’t played in 15 months?
“He has extreme confidence in himself, which is what you want at that position because if you don’t and you doubt yourself, it’s really hard,” head coach Kirby Smart said after the game. “He did a good job of working the receivers, making them believe, too, he was going to get them the ball and make plays and re-energize that group, which is really important.”
Naturally, he wasn’t perfect. He struggled with a few mechanical issues. His offensive line didn’t help him at a few points, as he was sacked 3 times. He may have been a little too eager to lean on his deep ball when a simpler, shorter pass would have sufficed.
But when that deep ball worked, it certainly did its job.
Ask Jermaine Burton, who found himself on the other end of 3 40-ysrd-plus passes — including a 48-yard score in the 3rd. From the outset, Daniels has shown he has a knack for explosive plays, and with speedsters in the receiving corps to stretch the field, he’ll have a chance to put it to good use.
“George (Pickens) will make me look good, Jermaine will make me look good. Kearis (Jackson) makes me look really good when I underthrow him on a deep ball down the middle and he makes a great play,” Daniels said afterward. “If you’re gonna give a 1-on-1 with George, Jermaine, Kearis and all our guys, I’m probably going to make you want to try and stop it.”
Burton certainly made Daniels look good: his 197 yards were 8 shy of tying Tavarres King’s school record set in 2011. Pickens (8 catches, 87 yards, 1 touchdown) was terrific in his 1st action since the Alabama game, and Jackson (4 catches, 55 yards) found the end zone for the 2nd straight week. It’s clear that despite never having played a game together, Daniels’ chemistry with his receivers, while not completely without its flaws, is looking good early on.
The skeptic, though, will continue to say to wait until Daniels faces a “real” opponent. South Carolina and Vanderbilt, with a combined record of 2-13, are next, and there’s the possibility that Missouri can be squeezed in at the end. And that’s a fair point to make now that the business end of the schedule for the Dawgs has been done for a while.
The fact of the matter is that this game, whether it was against Mississippi State or Mississippi Valley State, was Daniels’ 1st opportunity to prove that he could make the transition from solid Pac-12 quarterback to SEC quarterback, and to do so after coming off an injury. It was a remarkable 1st impression, the redshirt sophomore sending a message that he is more than capable of leading this offense, one that has been decent more often than not but far from elite.
That has been the main differentiator between Georgia and LSU last year and Alabama and Florida this year: Smart and Dan Lanning have been able to oversee solid defensive performances week in and week out, but without an elite offense, the Dawgs have found themselves unable to find that missing piece to turn them into a legitimate College Football Playoff contender.
Sure, it’s too early to tell if they are finally on the path to putting it all together offensively, and if this is the version of JT Daniels that we’ll see in 2021. That’s if he wins the job: 5-star phenom Brock Vandagriff arrives in January, with a fresh debate over who should start sure to begin anew.
But that’s still a few months off. Saturday went as well as Daniels could have hoped for. If that is any indication of what he can do during the remainder of his time in Athens, Dawgs fans are in for a treat.