SANTA ANA, Calif. — The next great USC quarterback is trying to do something that's never been done at his high school.
This idea turned into an obsession that eventually will end with JT Daniels skipping a full calendar year of high school by—are you ready for this?—completing two academic years in one to get on the field at USC one season early.
Twice the amount of classwork and homework. Twice the number of quizzes and tests.
Daniels should be completing his junior year at the end of this month. Instead, he will wrap up his high school career when he walks for graduation on May 26.
"It's really no big deal," Daniels says as he begins to explain the process that will take him from 5-star recruit at Mater Dei High School to next in line at USC, the program that churns out All-Americans and Heisman Trophy winners at the most important position on the field.
He'll officially enroll at USC in June, and fall camp begins in August. By the first week of September, the hectic eight months of reclassifying—the NCAA's official term for skipping your senior season of high school—will be worth it if and when he's under center as the Trojans' starting quarterback.
"People shouldn't think this is the most ridiculous process, and I'm a total badass because I'm doing this," he continues. "Just because it's supposed to be one way, or has been one way to graduate, doesn't mean it should be that way. You have to figure out what's right for you."
It is here where the layers peel away and reveal the inner fortitude of this remarkable 18-year-old. For Daniels, this whole journey is about much more than football.
To understand Daniels, you need to know he doesn't swim in the safe and shallow end. He dives into the deep end and dissects it. A notebook in hand, he faithfully records his thoughts. We learn by doing, he consistently reminds himself. We fail through avoidance.
Write it once and it's there to see. Read it again, and you'll never forget it. That's his approach.
Daniels is both the quarterback who threw for 12,014 yards in three seasons at Mater Dei and had an absurdly impressive touchdown-to-interception ratio of 152-to-14 in the highly competitive Trinity League, and a deep-thinking teenager who is not afraid to ask the tough questions—about football and life.
So there he was in his room in Irvine, California, on an uneventful early January evening, staring at the ceiling and wondering why he wasn't happy. Since first picking up a football at the age of six, Daniels had known nothing but outward success. He was halfway through the gauntlet of reclassifying and getting closer to USC—where an inexperienced depth chart could translate into a starting job.
"But I just felt empty," Daniels says.
Then he found Buddhism. And like everything else, once Daniels got his mind around it, he couldn't get enough of it. He immersed himself in its idea that one can be liberated from the suffering inherent in this life by cultivating wisdom, virtue and concentration.
It was no different than all of those notebooks he filled over the last three years with observations and information about playing quarterback and reading defenses and calling plays. Those notebooks are still in his locker at Mater Dei, eight in all, crammed full of small type to fit as much as possible on each page.
"JT learned long ago that generally the person with the most information, ceteris paribus, probably wins," his father, Steve Daniels, says.
Except ceteris paribus—all things being equal—is the last thing you'd find in the world of JT Daniels. He's all about nuance. So when he didn't have the answers, when he felt empty and unfulfilled, he gorged on the tenets of Buddhism and eventually found it to be powerful and effective in its simplicity.
"There's no one happier on the planet than Buddhist monks," Daniels says. "They have no real possessions. They don't go out and get girls. They're not partying every weekend. But they are so grateful for everything they have and live in such a peaceful state of mind. People just have to figure out what's best for them. Maybe that's pushing yourself to be the best football player, or maybe it's just being a good person and enjoying life. It would be great if I could inspire others to see life that way."
How have others taken it so far?
"I haven't really told anyone," he says. "My dad, mom and you are the only ones who know."
That won't last for long.
The next great USC quarterback wants you to know that reclassifying had nothing to do with Sam Darnold leaving early for the NFL and opening the door for him to play as a freshman.
He had already decided he wasn't going to learn more in another year at Mater Dei than he would in his first season at USC. He could also cut a year off the time it takes to get to the NFL, get paid sooner and save a year of absorbing hits to his body.
He knows what you're thinking: How do Buddhism and the demands of big-time college football coexist? How does shoving two years of academics into one school year bring one to greater wisdom, virtue and concentration?
"If you're detached, it's not where you own nothing, but where nothing owns you," Daniels says of a related tenet of Buddhism. "I don't feel like I have to win a national championship or a Heisman Trophy. Now, I want to and will work my ass off to do it and will have fun doing it. But I'm not defined by football or my success. It's purely a state of mind. It's inner peace."
How else could he have tackled the last two semesters at Mater Dei, a rigorous process that will end later this month? He not only must meet NCAA standards, he also must reach USC and Mater Dei graduation requirements. Mater Dei requires 80 hours of community service, which meant he had to perform double the community service (for his junior and senior years) while taking double the course load.
He is taking 10 classes this semester, seven at the school and three online. There are three religion classes (Comparative Religions, Philosophy and Religion 3), two English classes (English 3 and 4), Chemistry, Algebra 2/Trigonometry, History, Economics and Government.
He also throws for 90 minutes three times per week and gets recovery therapy twice per week. He's teaching at a football camp on campus twice per week to help fulfill his community service hours, and he's adamant about getting eight hours of sleep a night.
How is all of that possible, you ask?
"You have to understand the young man behind it," says Mater Dei principal Frances Clare.
Clare reviews every application to Mater Dei, which touts 99 percent college placement and is the largest non-public high school west of Chicago. Three years ago, one application stood out. It came from the same boy who showed up at a passing camp on the Mater Dei campus five years earlier and took control of a camp session.
"I found myself literally kind of like [jaw wide-open]," says longtime Mater Dei head coach Bruce Rollinson, who in nearly 30 years at Mater Dei has had all but one of his starting quarterbacks receive a Division I scholarship offer. "He's throwing rocket ships to the higher-level kids, the seventh and eighth graders. The way he handled himself, the way he ran the drill, that's not normal."
When Clare saw the entrance exam scores three years ago, she knew Mater Dei had a unique student. She had no idea he was a football player, or that he would be the starting quarterback within a few months.
No Mater Dei student—much less athlete—has ever reclassified to enter college one full year early.
"I remember very distinctly his academic profile," Clare says. "I can still see his scores on that exam—among the highest quartile of the exam. You ask if I'm surprised that JT is reclassifying? No, not at all. He's very adept at compartmentalizing."
The alarm sounds every day at 6 a.m., and he's at Mater Dei by 7:15, using the first 75 minutes to study and complete classwork before the day begins. He usually makes it home by 7 or 8 p.m., and he's in bed by 9:30 to fall asleep by 10. He then starts it all over again the following day.
Before this reclassifying idea took hold, Daniels had a 4.2 weighted grade point average on a 4.0 scale. He's now at 3.6—and the slight drop is more impressive when you understand his approach. Learn the material, do enough homework to get by and nail the tests.
"It's 70s [score] for homework and 90s or better for tests, that's my plan," Daniels says. "It's not that stressful because at the end of the day, my future is football. I like to learn, and I'm going to pay attention. But I'm not going to have a career in accounting or chemistry. Anything I do in life will be through football. I will make a difference in the world through my passion for football—even after my playing days."
It is here where we pause for perspective. Beyond the academic rigors and athletic superlatives, beyond the idea that Daniels "will start day one, and change the way they do things at USC day one," as one Pac-12 coach tells Bleacher Report, he is still a fresh face who just turned 18—one whose world is about to get more hectic and demanding once he steps on campus at USC.
"I think he's a little naive to really understand what's coming in college," says Mary McElroy, a guidance counselor at Mater Dei and the school's NCAA coordinator. "It's not just football or school, it's the media, the attention, the expectations. He wants to embrace it, he's like, 'Fine, bring it on.' That's like saying, 'Come hit me with a truck.'"
McElroy's voice is cracking now. After spending the first 10 minutes explaining how Daniels is pulling this off, now it's emotional. Now it's personal. The smiling and inquisitive boy she sees every morning is but a short time from the real world.
"I don't want him to get annihilated," McElroy continues. "I've been doing this for 20 years, I've seen all these guys. You don't want to make a misstep and it's a disaster. I always tell JT, 'You have this unbelievable opportunity. Don't blow it.'"
The next great USC quarterback began his high school career on the bench. The starter then broke his wrist in Week 2, and the Daniels train was rolling.
He threw for 290 yards and six touchdowns in his first game as a starter. He threw 33 touchdown passes as a freshman and 67 as a sophomore.
By his second season, he was calling his own plays.
"We laugh about it all the time," Rollinson says of Daniels. "My offensive coordinator for the last two seasons basically wore a helmet. He called plays. He had the final call on protections. He had every position memorized. So when another player gets a blank stare in the huddle, he says you've got a drag route, or you have an over cross. We'd give him the generic formation, then look at him from the sidelines and say, 'It's all you.' And son of a gun if he didn't get us in the right play every time."
Want to know why Daniels is a good bet to start right away at USC? Why the quarterback play at USC may not decline as far as you'd think even though the previous starter (Darnold) was the third player chosen in the 2018 NFL draft?
Because it's more than physical ability and arm talent. It's knowledge of the game and the want—the need—to learn and get better.
Adam Dedeaux works with about half of the current NFL starting quarterbacks and owns 3DQB, an elite quarterback performance training facility in Huntington Beach, California. His clients include Tom Brady, Matt Ryan, Drew Brees and Carson Wentz.
Another one of his clients? JT Daniels.
"I don't even like admitting this,'' Dedeaux says. But Daniels' "ability to make adjustments and understand how quickly he can make those changes, you only see that kind of thing with elite NFL guys. There will be a learning curve at USC because of the athleticism and speed of the game. But his ability to obtain information and process it will allow him to shorten that curve."
Steve Daniels saw it all early. The unerring memory and recall, the attention to detail, the compartmentalization skills. When JT was six, he would watch Jon Gruden break down game tape on television and then played out scenarios on Xbox.
"He looked at me once and said, 'Dad, I'm sending the receiver in motion, and if the defense moves with him, it's man coverage,'" Steve Daniels says. "I mean, he was six."
Now you know why JT's dad took a year sabbatical from work—one that eventually turned into two years—to take then-12-year-old JT around the country to national and regional camps and seven-on-seven tournaments. JT wanted to be a quarterback, and Steve figured it was time to see how he stacked up against the competition.
He competed against many of the next crop of elite quarterbacks, including Trevor Lawrence (Clemson), Justin Fields (Georgia), Matt Corral (Ole Miss) and Dylan Morris (committed to Washington).
"It really took off after that," Steve Daniels says. "The idea of what he wanted, his future and how to get there, was right in front of him then."
The next great USC quarterback is at USC's Howard Jones Field on a perfect spring afternoon. The Trojans are in the middle of spring practice, and Daniels is standing behind the offense, getting mental repetitions so nothing surprises him in fall camp.
Even though he's a member of USC's 2018 signing class, he isn't allowed to compete until he graduates from Mater Dei, per NCAA rules. So he watches practice from the vantage point of a quarterback and takes notes about the day.
Those notebooks are with him everywhere he goes.
"He's probably smarter than the head coach and quarterback coach," says USC head coach Clay Helton.
Helton says the quarterback position is wide-open, and Daniels will compete with Matt Fink and Jack Sears for the starting job. Fink is the only one to have thrown a college pass (nine in 2017).
"Nothing is going to be given to me. I have to prepare and work like crazy for any playing time," Daniels says. "It's hard to stand there and watch, because everything I am wants to jump in there and practice."
During another of his legendary quests for information a few years ago, Daniels came upon the concept that 11 percent of your high school career is spent playing games. That means 89 percent is lifting weights, film study and practice.
"So if all you like is 11 percent, 89 percent of your life you're unhappy," Daniels says. "I'm going to play football, and I'm going to enjoy the hell out of it—every second of it. The way you do that is with great gratitude. If you go in with the mindset of gratitude, you will be happy doing the stuff other people hate."
Buddha called this nirvana.
Daniels says it's the path to becoming the next great quarterback at USC.