Inside the head of J.T. Daniels
Top quarterbacks are standard at Mater Dei High School.
Matt Leinart, Matt Barkley and Max Wittek all starred for the powerhouse in Santa Ana, Calif., before making their way to USC for college. Colt Brennan backed up Leinart, then set records at Hawaii.
But the latest quarterback in that line might be something altogether different. JT Daniels, a freshman, took over the starting job for Mater Dei in the second game of last season.
He’s since added several major scholarship offers, including one from Notre Dame.
“I’ve worked with a lot of quarterbacks,” said Kyle Woody, the quarterbacks coach at Mater Dei. “I think the thing that sticks out with JT, obviously he’s a really good passer. Obviously, he’s talented and understands everything. But his mind and his understanding of football is so beyond his years I don’t know how to explain it. You go to the analogy that he’s playing chess when everyone else is playing checkers.
“I always say he has the mind of like a 50-year old coach in his head. It just looks like everything’s in slow motion for him. He understands the game so well.”
Woody knows the position. He started at quarterback for Mater Dei as a senior before playing college ball at North Dakota. Woody, 29, has since returned to the area, where he works as a recruiter and coaches at Mater Dei on the side.
Along with all that, Woody is a quarterback instructor for 3DQB, a training group under mechanics guru Tom House. 3DQB and House have worked with Tom Brady, Drew Brees and other professional quarterbacks in recent years.
Daniels might be a year away from that level but he’s proven a quick study by throwing for 3,042 yards and 33 touchdowns against just four interceptions last season.
Notre Dame made him the first prospect offered in the Class of 2019 in late January. Other offers already on the table include Arizona State, BYU, Cal, UCLA and Washington. Michigan and Stanford have already expressed interest.
Woody views Daniels as a sort of football savant worth the attention.
“Our playbook tripled as soon as JT walked on the field and he had only been with us for two months or three months or whatever it was as a freshman,” Woody said. “He has such a good understanding of the game and spacing and play concept. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Need some examples?
Woody relayed stories of Daniels not only telling a receiver how he wants a route run, but demonstrating it. Same goes for an offensive lineman kicking back farther in pass protection. Daniels has jumped into drills to show everyone what he means.
Sometimes later at night or on the weekends Woody and Mater Dei offensive coordinator Dave Money will get text messages from Daniels asking very specific questions.
Daniels watches so much film — sometimes even at lunch during school days — his teammates poke a little fun. But they also know it’s part of what makes Daniels so good at a young age.
Osiris St. Brown, a four-star junior wide receiver prospect with several major offers, including one from Notre Dame, has reaped the benefits. He views Daniels as the “real deal” and has since early last season.
“I think it’s just his overall IQ of the game,” said St. Brown, whose older brother, Equanimeous, is a freshman receiver at Notre Dame. “He studies a lot. We’ll make fun of him sometimes because he watches so much film. He’ll watch it at lunch. I don’t know. He’s just really intellectual. He makes good reads and he throws pretty well.”
Woody watched from the sidelines last season as Daniels translated that detail-oriented preparation into a stellar freshman season. He also saw Daniels evolve.
Playing quarterback at Mater Dei can difficult enough, let alone as a freshman. Daniels started to assert himself as a leader throughout the season, especially once the wins started to start coming with regularity.
Daniels has since reached out to former Mater Dei and Notre Dame linebacker Joe Schmidt for more guidance. Schmidt went from walk-on to Irish captain during his college career.
“On his own he just kinda did it,” Woody said. “That’s just the kind of kid he is. He got (Schmidt’s) number and just kinda figured it out. He’s like, ‘Hey, next year I want to be a better leader for Mater Dei. Can you help me?’”
And Daniels still has three years of varsity football to play. Woody expects the growth to come in leaps and bounds over the next few years, justifying every bit of the hype that’s already started to build.
Daniels might have only flashed the things to come before he graduates.
“He was on the field with guys that were three years older than him,” Woody said. “From that age, the speed and the maturity and the explosiveness and the athleticism changes dramatically. I think he was on a field with 21 other guys that had more mature bodies. I think you’ll see the athleticism change this year and next year. His footwork will get faster and be more explosive. The whole offense, as far as what we run, is probably gonna be pretty similar. I just think he’ll be more of a dual threat.
“He’ll always be a pocket passer. That’s just who he is. But being a dual threat and understanding when to run is probably where you’ll see the most dramatic change this year and next year.”
Five-star rush end trending to Irish?
It might be a little bit too early in the recruiting process to consider four-star defensive end Joshua Kaindoh a lean toward Notre Dame but the Irish certainly are high on the IMG Academy prospect’s short list.
According to a source within the IMG program, Kaindoh is looking for a school that excels on the field and in the classroom.
The 6-foot-6, 228-pounder hopes to visit Notre Dame in the near future. That trip could occur in April when his IMG coach, Kevin Wright, travels to South Bend to speak at Notre Dame’s Coaches Clinic.
It’s no coincidence Wright, the former head coach at Carmel High School just north of Indianapolis, was invited to speak at the Irish event. Notre Dame has marked Kaindoh as one of its top targets in the recruiting class of 2017.
Can Irish lock down Indiana?
Notre Dame didn’t sign a single player from Indiana last cycle, although two in-state prospects held Irish offers and 17 committed to Power Five programs.
Notre Dame offered four-star Fort Wayne products Austin Mack (Ohio State) and Auston Robertson (unsigned). Mack ranked among the top receivers nationally and as the top overall prospect in Indiana. Robertson, a defensive end, ranked No. 3 in the state and was a long-time pledge to Michigan State but didn’t sign earlier this month.
The state’s second-ranked player, four-star quarterback Brandon Peters, signed with Michigan – as did the fourth-ranked player, four-star running back Chris Evans. Both are from the Indianapolis area.
Striking out in the Hoosier State is a first in the Kelly era, but should it raise alarm?
Securing the state border is a priority for large, public institutions, which pull heavily from their respective regional pools for talent.
That’s not the case for Notre Dame, which recruits as many national prospects as anybody. Moreover, quality is what matters in recruiting, not quantity or where it comes from.
In-state recruiting is still significant for Notre Dame, though, because of convenience and public perception.
It may work some of the time, but Notre Dame cannot routinely score the state’s top prospects by emblematically name-dropping “Notre Dame” and calling it a day, not with Mark Dantonio, Jim Harbaugh and Urban Meyer standing by to poach the state.
That’s partly why Notre Dame missed with Mack, who in hindsight was prematurely viewed as a Notre Dame lean because he shared a high school with Jaylon Smith.
However, failure to prioritize was not the case when Notre Dame missed on the state’s top-ranked player in 2017, four-star quarterback Hunter Johnson, who was courted hard by Notre Dame before he chose Tennessee and then flipped to Clemson.
Even so, Notre Dame whiffing on the state’s best isn’t a trend.
The Irish have offers out to three juniors in Indiana after offering one of the hottest prospects in the Midwest this week in three-star linebacker Pete Werner.
The Indianapolis product also added offers from Iowa, Ole Miss, Penn State and Tennessee this week. Stanford will be the toughest competition should the Cardinal offer this standout from Cathedral, which produced Irish safety John Turner.
Notre Dame was the first offer for the state’s second-ranked junior, four-star safety R.J. Potts of Fishers, who has yet to truly dive into the recruiting process. Indiana and Purdue make up Potts’ other offers.
Notre Dame has also expressed interest in getting four-star athlete Russ Yeast on campus. The Greenwood Center Grove prospect and Kentucky commitment also has offers from Iowa, Louisville, Maryland and Michigan. Yeast told Irish Illustrated this week that an Irish Junior Day (March 19) visit was possible.
Three-star receiver Mac Hippenhammer of Fort Wayne Snider visited Notre Dame twice last fall.
Notre Dame also got running back Markese Stepp, offensive guard Emil Ekiyor Jr. and athlete Tyrone Tracy on campus last fall. The Irish would be a major player for all three sophomores should they offer.
Ekiyor already has offers from Georgia, Michigan, Oklahoma and Tennessee.
Stepp’s offer list is highlighted by Illinois, Indiana, Iowa and Purdue.
Another in-state sophomore worth tracking is linebacker Cameron McGrone (6-foot-1, 210 pounds) of Lawrence Central, the same school that produced former four-star linebackers Brandon Lee in the 2014 class and Darrin Kirkland in the 2015 class. Lee signed with Missouri and Kirkland signed with Tennessee. Neither had Notre Dame offers.
New Offer Roundup
Notre Dame emerged as a big contender for Brooks after offering. Duke, Michigan and Virginia Tech have also offered. Brooks would ideally like to commit before his senior season. He plans a spring break tour of colleges.
North Carolina leads, but Notre Dame should threaten for the top spot before it’s over. Carter is being recruited by the Irish to play safety, and he’s a former teammate of Irish defenders Te’von Coney and Devin Studstill.
Crosby, who grew up a Notre Dame fan, set a decision date for April 22 before his Irish offer. Alabama, Clemson, N.C. State, Tennessee and Virginia Tech comprise his top five. Notre Dame has potential to mix things up despite his looming commitment date.
A self-proclaimed “soft verbal” to USC, Graham will visit Notre Dame for Junior Day on March 19. He plans to team up in college with fellow Trojans soft verbal, running back Stephen Carr, who was offered by Notre Dame earlier this month.
A Stanford commitment, Head visited Notre Dame for the Wake Forest game last season. He committed to the Cardinal in December. Notre Dame could get a visit down the line.
Hooker follows Avery Davis as the second quarterback offer in the ’17 class. N.C. State has made Hooker a major priority to secure inside its state borders. An offer to Hooker could affect the timeline of Davis, Notre Dame’s top prospect on the board at the position.
The perennial programs on the West will have fight hard to keep him home, but he’s not overly concerned with location. Georgia, Arizona, Michigan, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Louisville and Vanderbilt also offered this week.
An Indiana commitment since November, Notre Dame could emerge as a leading candidate to flip Johnson.
Lindsey transferred this semester from Bishop Gorman to Centennial, where Irish wide receiver signee Javon McKinley attends. The local schools figure to be contenders, as do Texas A&M, Ohio State and Oregon.
Paea earned an offer during a visit to campus this week. He plans to return on Feb. 28. Michigan, Michigan State and Oregon have also offered and will provide competition, but Notre Dame is the favorite.
A prospect that seems likely to stay on the East Coast, Proctor is one of the more sought-after linebackers in the country.
Rudolph is being pursued by Notre Dame as a hybrid outside linebacker/defensive end prospect. He’s also interested in Florida, Florida State, Tennessee and South Carolina, all of which have offered. A visit to campus could occur this summer.
Auburn and Tennessee are the early frontrunners. Georgia, Florida, Mississippi State and Ole Miss are among his other recent offers.
Wallace’s recruitment is still open. He has a twin brother, Tracin, a three-star athlete who’s recovering from an ACL tear. Schools that end up offering both brothers could stand the best chance in the end.
This in-state athlete has blown up on the recruiting trail during February. The Irish are likely to receive a visit for the first time this spring and will be a major player in his recruitment. Stanford will be major player as well if it offers.
Zaire ready to compete
Earlier this week the Bleacher Report put out a clickbait feature on the college quarterbacks most likely to transfer. The slideshow listed Malik Zaire – what drives traffic better than Notre Dame quarterbacks? – as one of its candidates. Checking with a source close to Zaire this week, it appears there is zero chance the rising senior quarterback departs South Bend this season.
Zaire, who enrolled early, is on track to graduate from Notre Dame in December as a major in Film, Television and Theater. Before then, he’ll face DeShone Kizer in a quarterback competition that figures to drag through spring practice and into fall camp.
Zaire is expected to compete in full during spring ball after suffering a season-ending broken ankle last September.
“He’s a Golden Domer for life,” a source said. “He’s not going nowhere. He loves Notre Dame.”
While Zaire would have the option to transfer after the season – because he’d graduate he’d be able to enroll for the spring semester and practice at his next stop – it doesn’t appear that’s likely either. He watched Andrew Hendrix thrive at Miami of Ohio, but Everett Golson struggled at Florida State, as did Dayne Crist at Kansas.
“Unless it’s a big-time school, forget about it,” the source said.
Zaire also worked overtime after Notre Dame’s bowl game to prepare for spring ball, staying in Arizona during break to train with quarterback coach Dennis Gile, who trained former five-star quarterback Kyle Allen and Blake Barnett, a one-time Irish commitment.