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Column: Vols Must Pursue Quarterback J.T. Daniels

When USC quarterback J.T. Daniels put his name in the NCAA transfer portal last week, Tennessee immediately popped up as a potential landing spot. Daniels, a former five-star quarterback prospect in the 2018 recruiting cycle, could always return to USC and withdraw his name from the transfer portal.

But should he remain in the portal and stick with his decision to transfer, Tennessee should do everything they can to get him to Knoxville.

On the surface, Tennessee may not seem like the most ideal situation for Daniels to transfer to. The Vols have five scholarship quarterbacks already and a sixth competitor in walk-on and former Maryland quarterback Kasim Hill. Tennessee also hasn’t been competing for titles like LSU and Washington, two other teams that have emerged as options for Daniels. While the Tigers went 15-0 last season and cruised to a national title and the Huskies had three-straight seasons of 10 or more wins before the 2019 season, Tennessee’s 8-5 campaign last year was their first winning record since 2016 and only their fourth season above .500 in the last 10 years.

When you dig deeper, though, Daniels possibly coming to Tennessee makes more sense on both sides.

I had the idea to write this column late last week but didn’t have the time to do it till now. In the meantime, Wes Rucker of 247Sports beat me to the punch with his well-written column detailing why it would be a no-brainer for Tennessee to take in Daniels should he choose the Vols.

In my column, I’ll undoubtedly be making some of the same points as Wes, but this isn’t a copy of his work; instead, I wanted to acknowledge his piece as I begin my own column on why it’s not only a no-brainer for the Vols to add Daniels if he wants to come to Knoxville, but why Tennessee absolutely needs to do everything they can to make that possibility a reality.

When you look at Daniels’ stats on paper, they probably don’t jump out at you. As a true freshman starter for USC in 2018, he completed 59.5 percent of his 363 pass attempts for 2,672 yards, 14 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions. He followed that up by completing 25 of his 34 passes for 215 yards, a touchdown, and an interception in USC’s season opener against Fresno State in 2019 before suffering a season-ending injury.

But the baseline stats don’t tell the whole story on Daniels.

Daniels wasn’t your typical freshman quarterback at a Power Five school. He reclassified from the 2019 recruiting cycle to the 2018 class, effectively meaning he should’ve been playing his senior year of high school when he was a freshman at USC.

The 6-foot-3, 210-pound quarterback just turned 20 in February, meaning he’s younger than Tennessee’s J.T. Shrout by a few months but has the same amount of collegiate experience as the fellow California native currently on UT’s roster.

Not only that, but Daniels put up the numbers he did behind one of the worst offensive lines in the country in 2018.

Remember how bad Tennessee’s offensive line was during Jeremy Pruitt’s first season as head coach in 2018? The only two FBS schools that really could give the Vols a run for their money for the title of “worst offensive line” that season were Florida State and USC. The Trojans allowed four more sacks than Tennessee in 2018 (both programs went 5-7), and USC averaged just 5.78 yards per play that season, which is comparable to UT’s 5.46 yards a play that same season.

When you consider Daniels’ youth and just how bad of an offensive line he played behind as an 18-year-old, his numbers are actually fairly impressive.

Yes, there are injury concerns with Daniels. He tore his ACL on a sack in USC’s first game of the 2019 season, and the earliest he’s expected to be able to get back to full football activities is sometime this summer. There’s no guarantee that he’ll regain all his former ability, but he very clearly has a lot of raw talent. Even with his reclassification to the 2018 class, Daniels was still a five-star and ranked as the No. 6 overall prospect and No. 2 pro-style QB in the 247Sports Composite rankings. He was a star at Mater Dei, one of the most prestigious high schools in California and in the US.

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But why would Daniels choose Tennessee, especially when the Vols have a redshirt senior at quarterback, a five-star they just signed in the 2020 class, and at least four other signal-callers on the roster?

For one, Daniels’ former offensive coordinator from his freshman season at USC is currently on Tennessee’s staff. Tee Martin served as the Trojans’ OC in 2018 before not being retained after the end of the season. Pruitt brought Martin on as his wide receivers coach prior to the 2019 season, and it’s believed Martin and Daniels have a good relationship.

Tennessee also has one of Daniels’ former teammates on the roster in grad transfer wide receiver Velus Jones Jr.

Though Jones was used primarily as a special teams player at USC, his best year as a receiver with the Trojans came with Daniels at the helm and Martin calling plays. Jones had career-highs in receptions (24), receiving yards (266), and receiving touchdowns (1) in 2018, and he even scored a rushing touchdown that season. Both Jones and Martin are very familiar with Daniels and could help him acclimate better.

Even with that, though, surely the crowded quarterback room would dissuade Daniels from coming to Tennessee, right? Places like LSU and Washington — who just had their starting quarterbacks declare for the 2020 NFL Draft and have little to no experience at QB on their current rosters — would be more appealing options for the former five-star, right?

Well, yes and no.

While getting a starting job seems easier on paper at those schools, both LSU and Washington have done a good job of recruiting the quarterback position over the last few years and do have a handful of former highly-rated QBs on their rosters who have been at their respective schools at least one season already. There’s no guarantee that an LSU or Washington could provide Daniels with an instant starting spot.

Tennessee can’t guarantee that either, but it’s not like the Vols are exactly settled at quarterback, either.

After a very rough start to his 2019 season, Jarrett Guarantano bounced back and had a much better end to his redshirt junior campaign as the Vols’ quarterback. But he wasn’t the definite starter heading into the spring, and Jeremy Pruitt made it known that Guarantano was going to have to fight for his starting job all offseason.

The competition behind Guarantano was set to be fierce this spring with rising sophomore Brian Maurer, rising redshirt sophomore JT Shrout, and early enrollee freshmen Harrison Bailey and Jimmy Holiday all on campus for spring practices.

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 outbreak set those plans back.

The Vols got in two spring practice sessions before spring break hit and practices were eventually canceled. That did none of UT’s signal-callers any favors, but especially five-star Harrison Bailey. Vol fans were hopeful that the highly-touted QB would either unseat Guarantano as the starter or, if nothing else, force Guarantano, Maurer, or Shrout to up their game and elevate their play to a level that would help Tennessee take another step forward in the fall.

Instead, Bailey didn’t get much of a chance to settle in this spring and wasn’t able to really sink his teeth into the Vols’ offense. His development took a big step back, as did Maurer’s, Shrout’s, and Holiday’s.

Because of that, Tennessee could be in a pretty bad predicament in 2020 if Guarantano goes down for any significant period of time with injury. Or if Guarantano fails to improve off last season and plays similarly to what he did in the 2019 campaign.

Guarantano himself has injury concerns, too. He’s an extremely tough quarterback, but he’s yet to ever play a full season as the full-time starter. He got knocked out of a few games early in 2018, and he missed time both due to his poor play and a broken wrist in 2019. It’s very easy to assume it’s a matter of when — not if — Guarantano will sustain some sort of injury in 2020, too.

If that happens, the Vols would be turning to either a true freshman with no collegiate experience or a sophomore that didn’t exactly inspire a ton of confidence last season.

Brian Maurer had flashes of potential as a true freshman in 2019, but he was very inconsistent and very turnover-prone. Maurer finished his first year with a 46.7 completion percentage and five interceptions compared to two passing touchdowns. Plus, Maurer himself had injuries, most notably two big blows to the head in two different games.

Shrout didn’t play as much as Maurer, but he was lucky not to have any turnovers in his limited action. He finished with a 48.1 completion percentage on 27 attempts with a touchdown and no interceptions.

And with Bailey and Holiday not having a spring to get their feet under them, turning the ball over to them is far less appealing than it would’ve been had they been able to go through the spring and have a normal summer workout schedule.

If Daniels wants to come to Tennessee and the Vols bring him in, he would give UT’s coaches a true competitor with Guarantano for the starting quarterback job. Assuming Daniels does recover effectively from his injury, he has more experience than the rest of Tennessee’s QB room combined outside of Guarantano, and he has tons of natural ability.

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“But what about Tennessee’s quarterbacks transferring out of Knoxville?” I hear you ask. Well, that was going to happen this offseason regardless.

Tennessee already has a packed-full quarterback room even without Daniels on the roster. There’s a very high chance that one — if not two — quarterbacks were going to transfer away from UT this offseason anyway. If the spring had been able to play out, there’s no doubt that at least one of the Vols’ scholarship quarterbacks would’ve seen the writing on the wall for his time at Tennessee.

Bringing in Daniels would make little to no difference there. The only thing it would potentially affect differently would be the futures of Guarantano or Bailey.

If Daniels does come to Tennessee and ends up winning the starting job, does Guarantano hang around to ride the bench for his fifth year? What about Bailey? Does he see Daniels’ arrival as a challenge for him to overcome in 2021, or does he decide to try his luck elsewhere?

Those are questions without answers right now, but Tennessee’s coaches can’t be worried about things like that. In fact, they’re paid millions of dollars to make decisions just like this every week, month, and year.

Recruiting is the name of the game in college football. Every student-athlete knows that as soon as he’s officially on the roster, he’s already being recruited over. No jobs are guaranteed, and no coach can get complacent and think he has a position under wraps, especially quarterback. If he does that, recruiting suffers, the roster suffers, and his job comes under fire.

Harrison Bailey — and any other freshman or sophomore on UT’s roster right now — should know that they aren’t guaranteed anything. They have to prove themselves each and every day, and they can’t get comfortable, either. In fact, competition brings out the best in everyone on the field, and a true competitor welcomes that kind of test of skill.

The quarterback position is the one spot a team can’t afford to miss on over and over again. Tennessee hasn’t had true elite QB play in years, and while there’s no guarantee that Daniels would bring that level of play to Knoxville, you absolutely welcome in a former five-star QB if he wants to join your team. Any coach would be foolish not to do so, outside of character or legal issues, of course.

Pruitt himself has said that you keep bringing in quarterbacks until you have “the one.” Right now, Tennessee doesn’t have that. Could Bailey, Maurer, Shrout, or Holiday develop into that down the line? Sure. But are they the answer right now? No. Guarantano hasn’t proven that he is, either.

This is no exaggeration: Tennessee is a good quarterback away from making some noise in 2020. The Vols return a wealth of experience along the lines of scrimmage, have a lot of potential at wide receiver, have a good running back group, potentially elite defensive back play, and a young but talented nucleus at linebacker.

If the Vols get good-to-great QB play in 2020, they have a chance to pull off some upsets and compete for the SEC East crown.

Daniels has plenty of schools to choose from if he does decide to transfer away from USC, but Tennessee needs to do everything in their power to convince him that Knoxville should be the next stop in his collegiate career.

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