ATHENS — JT Daniels made his long-awaited debut for Georgia football on Saturday, and the results did not disappoint.
Daniels lived up to his 5-star billing with a career-high 401 yards on 28-of-38 passing with 4 touchdowns in the Bulldogs’ 31-24 win over Mississippi State.
It was the first 400-yard passing game by a Georgia quarterback since SEC all-time passing leader Aaron Murray went for 415 in a loss to Auburn in 2013.
Coach Kirby Smart allowed Daniels to partake in his first media interview since arriving on campus in May after the game.
Here’s what Daniels had to say to the media in a Zoom call following the game, with the paraphrased questions he was asked.
Q: Why has it taken so long for you to get this opportunity?
JT Daniels: “You said it right there, that is not my decision. I’ve been getting healthy and getting as many reps as I can with the scout team, trying to get with the receivers as much as I can, making sure I know the play book and just getting ready.
It feels really good, this is the first time I’ve taken a (game) snap since Aug. 31, 2019, in another part of the country, and I really couldn’t be happier and more appreciative to Coach Smart, Coach Monken, and the team.”
Q: When did you feel comfortable and confident that your knee was healthy, and what were your emotions on the final drive?
JT Daniels: First, with the knee and confidence, I really haven’t had much struggle with confidence with my knee. To be honest with you, I think some of that comes from playing the quarterback position, not being asked to do too much, especially on my right knee, my back knee, to be in that much discomfort or to be in a position where I could potentially hurt it gain. It’s just been a progression over time, feeling a lot better. I feel really good right now in terms of knee health and overall body health.
In terms of emotions, at the end with Victory Formation, it started to sink in a little bit, (but) it still really hasn’t yet, that I got to play football again. I really just felt a lot of gratitude for my family, for this team, for this coaching staff, for everyone for really helping me get back on my feet and play football again.
Q: Did you ever imagine after so long that the first game back would be for 401 yards and 4 touchdowns?
JT Daniels: “Absolutely. It’s something you visualize and dream about, putting up good numbers, it’s great and all, it’s something you want to do.
We weren’t even paying attention to the numbers or any of that, it was just executing what Coach Monken called, and I think he dialed up a phenomenal game plan. The receivers did a great job of winning, and the whole O-Line started up with Trey Hill calling out the protections and helping me out and keeping the whole thing going. It was just a great job from all of us.
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Q: What brought you to Georgia? The opportunity, the coach, or coach Monken’s offense?
JT Daniels: “Both of those, absolutely. I think Coach Smart is all about winning no matter what, it’s something I really respect. I think he does so much, himself, for the team. He’s completely selfless, he is here to help us win games and achieve our goals, so that’s one thing.
Two, I absolutely love the state of Georgia, I had been in the South one time for the Manning Passing Academy and I fell in love with it when I was down in Louisiana.
Then Coach Monken’s offense, just talking to him through Zoom when i was in the transfer portal, I knew he was a guy I’d love to play for.
Q: Can you talk about being able to do this despite the run game struggling? Did you know you would have to throw deep?
JT Daniels: “In terms of the run game, first, you have to give a lot of credit to Mississippi State. That front six, and really the D-Coordinator, they ran a bunch of stunts. They were doing a great job of playing right into it. Those guys are physical, tough dudes.
On film we’ve been such a great run team, and I think we had to prove ourselves in the pass game a little bit. They played a little more Cover Zero with no safeties, they played a little more man. I think it was their emphasis to try to stop Zeus and Cook from taking it up on them.
No, I did not think we would have to come out and be throwing the ball that much. But that’s football, you play the game, see what their game plan is and what they are trying to stop, and then you counter it
Q: Did you think your knee injury was potentially career ending? Should we expect 400 yards every game?
JT Daniels: “I did not think it (knee injury) was the end all be all, I’m just thankful that I do get to play football. It’s been a long time since I’ve taken a game snap. It feels great to do it again.
We love putting up good numbers, and if the situation presents itself I’ll throw George the ball, I’ll throw Kearis the ball, D-Rob, all of them, I’ll throw them the ball every time. But if you get a team playing soft, I have no problem giving Zamir and Cook the ball, and Kenny and Kendall and all those guys the ball every single play.
Q: Were you confident throwing the deep pass?
JT Daniels: “It was definitely something I saw, they were trying to send more pressure. They were playing more one-high and zero-high (coverage) than they had shown on film. If you have George Pickens and Jermaine Burton, if you’re not going to throw it up to them, don’t recruit them. George made me look good, Jermaine made me look good, Kearis makes me look really good when I under throw a deep ball down the middle and he makes a great play.
If you are give one-on-one with George, Kearis and Jermaine, and all our guys, I’m probably going to try to make you show me you can stop it.
Q: The first 28-yard pass was impressive, but then it appeared you were shaking off the rust on the first drive?
JT Daniels: “That was huge. Great question, because that really was it, getting your first hit, and throwing your first stupid throw. And that’s what it was, it was a dumb throw and it almost got picked, and then I got hit and I was like, ‘OK, it’s football again.’
Q: When Jamie Newman opted out, what happened? And did you have a setback that dropped you behind D’Wan Mathis and Stetson Bennett?
JT Daniels: “I was not cleared for the Arkansas game. Other than that, that’s really coach decision based. I think Jamie’s decision was separate, I can’t speak on it. I don’t know everything about it. I did not look into that like something happened to me. I was not cleared for Arkansas, and that was all Coach Smart’s decision.
Q: Can you discuss the connection you had with multiple receivers in your first game? Were you concerned with not having much practice time with them most of the season?
JT Daniels: “There definitely was, I wouldn’t say concerns, but it was something that was in my mind. I had not thrown to those guys for a little while. But when you have guys like George, and Kearis, and Jermaine, and guys that you know are going to b in the right spot, it’s not really as much of thing where, I have to have a million throws with them. I trust them to be in the right spot, and it’s my job to put (the ball) in the right spot.”
Q: When did you feel ready to play this season?
JT Daniels: “I really appreciate (head trainer) Ron Courson, our head of training, because he really did wait until I was ready to play football. As soon as I got cleared, I was ready to go out and play football.
But it absolutely should be said that I progressed a good amount since then, and we’re still progressing get full strength and full health back there.”
Q: When did you find out you would be starting?
JT Daniels: “I got called in on Monday, and he said we’re going to give you a shot, we’re going to go with you, and that was about the end of that. So just go from there.”
Q: How did you go from feeling rusty on the first drive to feeling comfortable?
JT Daniels: “I’d say after that (first) drive, everything kind of settled in. They were playing very similar to what we saw on film, in terms of the looks we’ve seen. We had a great game plan, I had my bad plays, it was time to move on.
Q: You hyped up your teammates on the sideline all season, what did they say to you during this game?
JT Daniels: “They were tremendous, especially Stetson, really all the guys, Stetson, Carson and D’Wan. It’s a phenomenal QB room to be a part of, everyone is really supportive of each other. All four of us want the team to win before we want anything. Stetson and I have been really good friends since I got here, I really appreciate him. I’m always here to help him out. He was there the whole night to help me out.
Q: What were you feeling after there were two dropped TD passes before you hit Kearis with what proved to be the game-winner?
JT Daniels: “It was really (thinking about the) next play. It’s not something you think about. Didn’t come up with two plays in row. As soon as it happens, you’re like dang, wish that happened. But I focus on staying neutral. Not getting down when something happens, and not getting too up and being overly positive for no reason.
“My thoughts were purely on the coverage, the play, the best look, best probability of who is going to win and throw it up to Kearis.”
Q: How shocked were you to see Zero Coverage on third-and-20 on the atD throw? How much freedom do you have to change plays?
JT Daniels: “I”m not gonna say I was surprised at seeing Cover Zero. Mississippi State has shown it, but not only them. It’s something you’ll see a decent amount. You’ll get Cover Zero trying to get you to throw the ball out quick, get it out of your hands, then rally and tackle and get off the field. So it wasn’t too surprising, but I knew what we had called. When I saw the Zero shell (coverage), I was real excited because I knew we were about to score.
In terms of what I’m allowed to do at the line, I’d like to say pretty much anything that I want within the system. So we have certain plays that are called checks, certain things if you get this look check to this, coach Monken gives all of us a lot of freedom to put us in the right play. He’s all about having quarterbacks enhance the play. There’s only so much he can do, in calling a play before we see the defense. He loves to have a quarterback that can see the defense and fix whatever needs to be fixed.”
Q: It wasn’t a capacity crowd, but what was it like playing here compared to a Pac-12 game?
JT Daniels: “I really can’t judge too much because we’re not close to full capacity with everything going on. But I can’t say enough about how great the fanbase is here. They’ve been super great with me, wish I got to meet more of them. It’s such great experience what we do going into the fourth quarter with the red lights and everything, I love what we do here.”
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