Just how much ground did LSU’s quarterback Jayden Daniels cover over the past year to wind up in New York and become the school’s third Heisman Trophy winner?
Daniels was expected to adhere to a pre-determined timetable and leave college after three years for the NFL Draft. When he transferred to LSU, that turned into a fourth year in 2022 which was expected to be his last playing on Saturdays.
Just over a year ago, with LSU headed to the Citrus Bowl, the expectation was for Daniels to opt for the NFL Draft where he was projected to be a second-day pick. He would land somewhere in the third or fourth round, well below his own expectations, and destined for clipboard duty on someone’s sideline.
Instead, he reversed field.
Daniels decided that a fifth year of eligibility was in his best interest, to help LSU contend for a national championship and enhance his own draft stock. He was part of the Tigers’ 63-7 demolition of Purdue in the bowl game and once the team returned to Baton Rouge, the Tigers lost promising redshirt freshman quarterback Walker Howard to the transfer portal.
Some of LSU’s faithful were conflicted. Some were confident reserve quarterback Garrett Nussmeier was the future and deserved an opportunity to start with Howard providing competition and ultimately would serve as his backup.
The following are a couple of excerpts from this magazine’s January 2023 mailbag:
“Keep him and send Daniels packing,” one fan wrote in support of Howard.
“This guy is terrible,” another supporter surmised of Daniels. “If that is what (Brian) Kelly looks for in a QB, no national championships in the future.”
Nearly 50 weeks after his announcement to return to LSU, Daniels found himself in New York and was voted college football’s best player. He became a Heisman Trophy winner with 503 first-place votes and 2,021 total votes, outdistancing Washington’s Michael Penix Jr., Oregon’s Bo Nix and Ohio State’s Marvin Harrison Jr.
Daniels was spectacular in leading a defensive deficient LSU team to a 9-3 record in the regular season before opting out of the ReliaQuest Bowl. It’s hard to fathom where the Tigers would have been without the native of San Bernadino, California.
Based on the constant struggles of the team’s defense it’s conceivable the Tigers’ record could have been closer to 5-6 or 6-5 without Daniels’ magical season.
“After last year I wanted to go play in the league,” Daniels said. “I had to make what was the best decision for me and my future. With the whole offense coming back, I felt I had the opportunity to catapult myself in those (draft) talks. Coming back is probably one of the best decision I made for myself. Now I’m here. If I had left last year, I wouldn’t be in this position.”
Daniels may be the singularly biggest riser on the ’24 draft boards, going from a second-day selection a year ago to a consensus first-round pick that will either be the second or third quarterback taken behind USC’s Caleb Williams.
Could he go higher? Never count out Daniels.
His ’23 season was one superlative after another, leading the nation in total offense (412.2), passing touchdowns (40), total TDs (50) and rushing yards for a quarterback (1.134).
Daniels’ passer efficiency rating (208.01) was the best in FBS history. He completed 236-of-327 passes for 3,812 yards and four interceptions, becoming the second player in SEC history – the other being Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel – to pass for more than 3,000 yards (3,812) and rush for more than a 1,000 (1,134) yards in the same season.
During his memorable senior season, Daniels also accomplished something that had never been done. He became the first player to ever rush for more than 200 yards (234) and pass for 350 yards (372) in the same game. A week after his mesmerizing 606-yard, 6-TD performance in a 52-35 win over Florida, he tied Joe Burrow’s school record by combining for eight TDs in a 56-14 rout of Georgia State.
“I always loved playing Florida,” Daniels said. “They don’t like us. I don’t like them. They were trying to talk to me. It kind of started me up. There was one play on third down where I got tackled from behind on their sideline. Everybody’s getting in my face, pushing me. I told them after the game they woke up a monster. Everything that happened, I said it’s ya’ll’s fault.”
Daniels wasn’t just a run-first, pass-second quarterback. His down-field passing acumen improved dramatically over a year ago, leading LSU’s No. 1 offense in which 70 of his 90 plays of 20-plus yards were from the pocket.
Daniels became the first LSU player to pass for more than 6,000 yards (6,725) and rush for 2,000 yards (2,019) in a career. He also finished as the only FBS player in history to pass for more than 12,000 (12,749) yards and rush for over 3,000 (3,307) yards in a career.
Daniels nearly made a clean sweep of the national awards in the lead up to The Heisman. He was named first team All-SEC and the league’s Offensive Outstanding Player before adding the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award and the Davey O’Brien National Quarterback Award and Walter Camp Player of Year honors.
“Lifting up that trophy,” Daniels said of The Heisman, “I became part of a fraternity and I’m happy to be part of it.”