Jayden Daniels' Heisman chase ends at LSU, but it began in Tempe at Arizona State

Michelle Gardner
Arizona Republic
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When Jayden Daniels arrived in Tempe as a true freshman in 2019, then-Arizona State football coach Herm Edwards touted him as a generational talent. A program changer. For a school relegated to middle-tier status, for the most part, it was a huge coup to have landed his services.

If only it had ended the way it started.

Daniels, who just rounded out his second season at LSU, is on the college football awards tour. He was named the AP College Football Player of the Year on Thursday, and he'll be in New York this weekend as one of four finalists for the sport's most coveted prize — the Heisman Trophy. The other finalists are Oregon quarterback Bo Nix, Washington quarterback Michael Penix and Ohio State wide receiver Marvin Harrison Jr.

All signs point to Daniels taking home the hardware from that one, too. He would be the third Heisman Trophy winner out of LSU, joining Billy Cannon (1959) and Joe Burrow (2019).

ASU has never had one.

Daniels' signature game in his three years in Tempe undoubtedly came came his freshman year late in the season. It was at Sun Devil Stadium and ASU was host to Oregon, then nursing a No. 6 national ranking and a shot at CFP berth. That Oregon team was quarterbacked by a future first-round draft pick and it's own Heisman contender, Justin Herbert.

Daniels outplayed the veteran and it wasn't close. His numbers: 22-for-32 for 408 yards and two touchdowns, most notably an 81-yard strike to Brandon Aiyuk to give ASU a 31-21 lead with 3:54 left. Herbert was 20-for-36 for 304 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions.

Daniels had three other wins over ranked teams that season, starting with his first career road game at Michigan State. He engineered an 11-play, 75-yard drive that ended with Eno Benjamin's 1-yard run with 50 seconds left that was the difference in a 10-7 win.

But Daniels' career stagnated after that rookie season, with the COVID-19 pandemic a contributing factor. The team played just four games, with the first two separated by a month, so there was no chance to get a in a groove or really develop.

Then came a 2021 junior season in which he appeared to regress. His completion rate increased slightly to 65.4% but he tallied as many interceptions as touchdowns, 10. And his knack for not making mistakes had been his trademark early on.

A common thought was the ASU was not running the proper offense to showcase Daniels' unique skill set. While all parties said the right things in public, the behind-the-scenes rumblings were that Daniels and then-offensive coordinator Zak Hill weren't exactly on the same page.

So when Daniels opted to enter the transfer portal it wasn't exactly a surprise. Most expected him to do so earlier. Most players put their name in the portal as soon as the season ends, looking to examine their options as soon as possible. The earlier you put in your name, the more options you'll have. Daniels didn't do so until February, which was indication he was indeed thinking the move over and likely wanting to see what the personnel was going to look like around him if he were to stay in Tempe.

At the same time, a cloud of uncertainty hovered over the program, stemming from recruiting violations during the pandemic and having recruits on campus in what was a "dead" period. Who knew what penalties were coming? (We still don't know.) Could the school land talent around Daniels good enough for him to showcase those special talents? Would he be on the same page with a new offensive coordinator, Glenn Thomas?

We never got a chance to find out, but the move was understandable.

Many in the ASU fan base didn't think he lived up to the hype after the mediocre sophomore and junior campaigns. Some didn't like his demeanor, with a television camera occasionally catching him on the sideline cracking as smile as if he wasn't focused or invested in the outcome. One thing Edwards had always touted was the players' poise under pressure and knack for not getting rattled.

Some didn't like the presence of his mother, who didn't just travel from their home in San Bernardino, California, for games but for a lot of practices too. Among the allegations in the still-open NCAA investigation is that her credit card was used to purchase plane tickets for potential recruits.

One way or another, it was time for Daniels to finish his career elsewhere. He had a solid 2022 campaign, but what he has done this season puts him in a different stratosphere than all other quarterbacks.

He led the nation in total offense with 4,946 yards in 12 games (412.2 yards per contest). He has passed for 3,812 yards, which ranks third nationally. His 40 touchdown passes ties him for first nationally with Nix, who has played in one more game than Daniels because he had a conference title game to add to his numbers. Daniels was intercepted just four times.

Daniels also ran for 1,134 yards and 10 TDs. His 50 combined touchdowns rushing and passing, along with a 2-point conversion on a passing play, means he has accounted for a nation-high 302 points.

In 52-35 win over Florida, Daniels became the first FBS quarterback to pass for more than 350 yards and rush for more than 200 in a single game.

Gaudy numbers indeed.

Daniels probably is thriving just because of the natural maturation process from the time you get to college to when you finish it, much less play an extra year. When he arrived at ASU he was first listed on the roster at 6-3, 175 pounds. Most looked at his thin frame and wondered how he could stand up to the physical demands of Division I football. Despite that, he missed just one game in his three years, that being the USC game his junior season.

Edwards never really took to his quarterback running around carefree because he didn't want him subjected to unnecessary hits. That was understandable, but also took away one his most notable attributes — the ability to make plays with his legs in the open field.

LSU now lists Daniels at 6-4, 210 pounds. So yes, he's bigger, faster and stronger and prepping for a chance in the NFL, which was the goal when he enrolled at ASU, looking to declare after his junior year.

Some projections now have him going in the second round of the draft. ASU might not see another player like him. But then again, the same could be said for the rest of college football.

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