ATHENS, Ga. — Kirby Smart doesn’t like to show his hand when it comes to Georgia’s quarterbacks.
If there is any question as to who will be his starter, the coach prolongs the mystery as long as possible.
This spring, there’s no mystery. After only four starts with the Bulldogs, JT Daniels‘ status as the starter – and the Bulldogs’ leader – is unquestioned.
Daniels is only more confident in his role following his first spring practice, which ended with him passing for 324 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions in Saturday’s G-Day spring game.
One year ago, Daniels was still recovering from a serious knee injury following his transfer from Southern Cal. He wasn’t cleared to play until after the start of the 2020 season.
This spring provided Daniels the important opportunity for extended practice time. He described the value of the 15 spring practices as “massive” for his continued development.
“There’s been a lot of overall improvement for me personally and also with a lot of guys stepping up in the receiver room,” Daniels said. “There’s a lot better chemistry you notice in the spring game.”
The spring also has helped teammates adjust to Daniels.
“It’s been good having him all spring and feeling that connection with him,” said offensive tackle Warren McClendon. “Being in the huddle with him every day is good.”
Daniels capped his abbreviated four-game debut as starter last season by leading three fourth-quarter scoring drives and passing for 392 yards in the Bulldogs’ 24-21 Peach Bowl win over Cincinnati.
With Daniels returning for his junior season, Georgia looked to have most of its offense back for 2021. Instead, top receiver George Pickens likely will miss the season after suffering a right knee injury early in spring practice.
Pickens’ injury robs Daniels of his most established playmaker, but the quarterback says the Bulldogs are deep at receiver. Proof came Saturday.
Freshman Adonai Mitchell joined Daniels on the first-team offense and had seven catches for 105 yards, including a 24-yard scoring catch with four seconds remaining in the first half. Demetris Robertson caught a 59-yard scoring pass from Daniels, who also threw a touchdown pass to Kearis Jackson.
Smart said Daniels “has got command of the offense” despite playing less than half a season.
“He understands it,” Smart said. “The key is his decision-making process. The quarterback has to be in charge every single play and he manages that very well for us.”
The scrimmage, played before 20,524 fans, was only Daniels’ second appearance at Sanford Stadium. His home debut will be difficult to top.
Daniels raised expectations in his only 2020 home game by passing for four touchdowns in a 31-24 win over Mississippi State. Overall, he threw for 1,231 yards and 10 touchdowns in his four games, all wins.
Georgia finished 8-2 and No. 7 in the final AP Top 25 poll. The Bulldogs’ offense, known as a run-first attack, found passing balance with Daniels at quarterback.
There is an expectation the second season under offensive coordinator Todd Monken, and the first full season with Daniels, will only add more emphasis to the passing game.
“He has better understanding of his weapons and he’s got a boatload more reps with each one of those,” Smart said of Daniels.
“It’s very, very, very rare that the first guy tackles any of our running backs,” Daniels said. “We trust our running backs with the ball to make guys miss them.”