Hey, Kirby: JT Daniels is the only choice for Saturday against Auburn
With Monday’s news of “Kirby Smart confirms JT Daniels is cleared to play on Saturday,” there might as well have been a second announcement.
“JT Daniels will get his first SEC start on Saturday.”
Well, at least he better. That’s the obvious choice for the Georgia head coach. It should have been the obvious choice the second that D’Wan Mathis was pulled from Saturday’s win against Arkansas.
The talent is there, but clearly, he’s not ready. A spring game could have done him some good, and perhaps those live game reps in Week 1 will do him some good for the next time he’s called upon.
And while Stetson Bennett IV might be ready to go beat a team like Arkansas, let’s be perfectly clear. As needed as that was, Georgia isn’t hitching its national championship wagon to Stetson Bennett IV. Yeah, I repeated his full name. I say that because if there were any Bulldog fans who came away from Saturday thinking he could be the guy to lead its program to a national title in what’s going to be a grueling all-SEC schedule, I recommend taking a step back.
Smart got Daniels for a reason. You can debate if that reason was because he wasn’t sold on Jamie Newman or that he simply wanted depth in this unpredictable year, but he was aggressive enough in the transfer market to get the coveted former 5-star quarterback so that if the situation called for it, he could turn to Daniels.
It’s already that time.
Ideally, that time wouldn’t have come at all in 2020. Newman would have been the guy and taken off while Daniels would have just gotten garbage time reps in blowout wins. Or alternatively, Mathis would have lit up Arkansas and looked like the next big thing in the SEC.
Neither scenario happened. Instead, as a 4-score favorite, Georgia had to turn to the guy who appeared to be option No. 4 a month ago to win its season-opener.
Welcome to 2020, where plans are just ideas that are waiting to be ruined.
This might sound like a knock on Bennett, but it’s really not. If there was a positive from Saturday’s offensive showing, it was that Smart now knows he can turn to the former walk-on (he’s on scholarship now) in the event that all hell breaks loose again. There’s no guarantee that Bennett would have as much success in relief against Auburn, but it’d at least be somewhat familiar territory after his Week 1 experience.
Auburn is a different beast. And to be clear, I’m not declaring that Daniels is going to tame the beast. With all due respect to the likes of Kyle Whittingham and Justin Wilcox, Kevin Steele is better than any defensive coach that Daniels has faced in his college career. That’s why Steele is the highest-paid defensive coordinator in America. Daniels, in case you were wondering, completed 54% of his passes for 5.4 yards per attempt in a pair of losing efforts in those games against Utah and Cal. He was benched in the 4th quarter in one of them and his offense was held without a point in the final 37 minutes of the other.
I say that because there’s no guarantee that Daniels looks any better than Mathis did on Saturday. For all we know, the guy who enrolled over the summer and just got medically cleared to play his first football game in over a year will struggle. In fact, I’d bank on that. Set your expectations low for Daniels. We could still see him fail to look off safeties and stick with his first read:
USC QB JT Daniels with a second interception in the 1st quarter to Evan Worthington pic.twitter.com/uNJ0SbO3ME
— Ralphie Report (@RalphieReport) October 14, 2018
But if you’re Smart, you have to go back to your initial instinct that said “yes, we need to go out and get this kid to come to Athens.” Go back to what you saw watching him make big-time throws deep down the sideline. Go back to the talent and poise you saw that allowed him to be a Power 5 starter as a true freshman at USC.
And perhaps of equal importance, go back to what you saw Saturday.
Georgia needs someone whose at least seen a season’s worth of defenses at the Power 5 level. Daniels is the only guy left who can claim that.
Knowing Smart, he’s going to play it coy all week. The last thing he wants to do publicly is give Steele some extra insight as to which way he’s leaning.
But privately? Smart needs to give Daniels every rep with the first-teamers, especially after his late arrival to campus. This is a game that could come down to executing that proper back-shoulder fade, or knowing whether a receiver is going to break to the pylon or the middle of the end zone. There’s no margin for error. Smart knows that.
This feels like another critical juncture in the Georgia quarterback roller coaster, which has been quite the ride during the Smart era. Of course, there was the call to start Jacob Eason as a true freshman in 2016. There was Smart’s decision to stick with Jake Fromm when Eason returned from his season-opening injury in 2017. There was the move to stay with Fromm and not turn to Justin Fields after the struggles against LSU in 2018. And most recently, there was the choice to bail on the blue-chip prospect 20 minutes into his first career start in place of the former walk-on.
With how good this Georgia defense looks, the 2020 quarterback situation could determine whether the 1980 jokes finally come to an end. The time is now for Daniels to take the reins.
You know, assuming Smart makes the wise choice to give them to him.