How L.A.’s Jalon Daniels went from unknown to Heisman hopeful

Bryce Young was going to be there. That was all Jalon Daniels could think about as he hyped himself up for the seven-on-seven passing event in the spring of 2019.

Daniels and Young may have been the same year in school, but they were far from peers within the cutthroat world of Southern California high school quarterback prospects. After his junior season at Lawndale High, Daniels still had not been awarded a star rating by the recruiting services. Young, the Santa Ana Mater Dei prodigy who was committed to USC, didn’t just have five stars next to his name. He was a star.

“Bryce Young was the bar,” recalls Daniels’ stepfather, Tyrone Dubois-Daniels. “He’s always been an admirer of Bryce.”

“Everything he was working for, Bryce had,” adds Les James, Daniels’ godfather.

The best prep quarterbacks in the Los Angeles area could already feel like celebrities. Their brands — and their skills, of course — were being fashioned long before Daniels had ever taken a snap as a starter in high school or even contemplated working with his own quarterback coach. The battles brewing every fall between Young’s Mater Dei team and DJ Uiagalelei’s St. John Bosco behemoth were the stuff of legends, so much so that Daniels leading Lawndale to the school’s first CIF state championship in 2018 barely seemed to register among the kingmakers at 247Sports and Rivals.

“In L.A., the way things work as a quarterback, there are tiers,” says quarterback coach Sam Fisher, who began to work with Daniels a few months before his junior season. “If you start getting early love as an eighth- or ninth-grader, even if you haven’t put that work in, you usually get put up to the front. Everything trickles down from there. That class, looking back with Bryce and DJ, there was such a narrative between Mater Dei and Bosco, it just sort of took over L.A. for those years.”

The system was not calibrated for late bloomers. For years, devoted football fathers across Southern California had understood that. Heck, it may have been those dads’ desires for their sons to win the quarterbacking beauty pageant that created the culture to begin with. Young had the meticulous Craig Young analyzing every move he made. Uiagalelei, the five-star prospect committed to Clemson, was guided by the forceful presence of his father, Dave Uiagalelei, who publicly labeled his methods “Big Dave’s Blueprint.”

Jalon Daniels, center, is joined his family during his high school football senior day.

Jalon Daniels, center, is joined by his stepsister Tylynne, from left, mother Star Daniels, stepfather Tyrone Dubois-Daniels, stepsister TyLeigh and stepsister Tyleri during his senior night at Lawndale High.

(Family photo)

Jalon Daniels? He had a loving mother whose goal was for her son to never have to think about the fact he didn’t have a father around. Football wasn’t really her thing.

“For me and my mom, we didn’t really know much about the recruiting process and trying to get to Division I,” Daniels says. “We just knew the traditional story that if you balled at whatever high school you’re at, you’d get some attention. Once we got to high school, we realized that wasn’t the case.”

By the time of the seven-on-seven showcase at Loyola High, where Young made his appearance and Daniels looked on in awe from across the field, the reasons for Daniels remaining in relative anonymity didn’t really matter. His senior season was on the horizon, and his time had to be now. He believed that if he just kept working in “the lab,” as he called his training sessions, maybe someone out there would notice his gifts and take the time to find out what was really inside of him.

Daniels didn’t know it then, but his tape and measurements had made their way into the hands of a senior offensive analyst at Kansas. Brent Dearmon loved what he saw, but the coaches above him were not interested.

Kansas quarterback Jalon Daniels evades Houston defensive lineman Nelson Ceaser to score a touchdown.

Kansas quarterback Jalon Daniels evades Houston defensive lineman Nelson Ceaser to score a touchdown during the Jayhawks’ win on Sept. 17.

(Eric Christian Smith / Associated Press)

“I would plug his statistics and all this stuff up against some of the top quarterbacks in the country, and to me he was right there with them,” Dearmon says. “I would take him up the chain, and everybody in the building didn’t like him because they were looking for 6-4 guys, the old-school NFL model, and that’s just not him.”

Still, Dearmon kept Daniels’ information in a place where he could find it later. Just in case.

It is ironic that Jalon Daniels spent his high school years wanting those stars next to his name so badly. Because up until that point, his mother, Star Daniels, had provided him with all the shine and guiding light he’d ever needed.

Jalon’s father made it clear he wasn’t going to be a part of their lives, and Star took it upon herself to make sure the hole he left behind didn’t define them. That meant working full time for an insurance company and taking on a second seasonal job at Toys R Us. That meant driving him back and forth to his Pop Warner football practices with the Inglewood Jets and his baseball practices, where he first flashed his rocket right arm from third base.

Simply, she just really didn’t want him to be one of those kids who just ran around the neighborhood.

“No matter what, I was present, and he always knew I was present,” Star says. “I wanted to make sure that he never felt that feeling of not having Dad there. I made sure to instill certain things in Jalon so that he would grow up to be the type of man that anybody’s daughter could take home to their mother. I told him that all the time.”

She tried to limit his outside influences as much as possible. She didn’t let him sleep over at friends’ houses until high school, but he could invite 10 of his pals over to their house anytime. When Jalon wanted to go to a party, the condition was that she would park outside of the house.

“She let me know when it was time to leave,” Jalon says, laughing. “An hour and a half before the party ended, we were on our way home.”

“People wrote him off, but he always kept God in his life. It didn’t faze him, not one bit, and I actually think it made him better, put a chip on his shoulder.”

— Elijah Jackson, Jalon Daniels’ high school teammate

When it came to football, Star didn’t get too far into the details. Her eyes just followed No. 6 around the field, wherever he was. She noticed a shift in the game’s importance to her life when it was time to choose a high school, and that decision was partly based on where Jalon could get a shot to play quarterback.

A handful of Inglewood Jets were going to attend Narbonne, so the LAUSD school was the natural choice. There, Jalon quickly realized his mom wasn’t the only one who didn’t know that much about football. He had a lot to learn too.

“It was my first time hearing about actual quarterback reads in the read option game, two-high or one-high safeties,” Jalon says. “It definitely took a lot of development my freshman year.”

His sophomore year, Narbonne coaches left little doubt where he stood when he was moved back to the freshman team. Jaylen Henderson, who would later play at Fresno State, and Kyle Williams, who would later play wide receiver at Nevada Las Vegas, were ahead of him on the depth chart. And that was before Narbonne brought in Long Beach Poly transfer Jake Garcia, one of those anointed five-star prospects, after Daniels’ sophomore year.

Jalon Daniels, who now starts at quarterback for undefeated Kansas, played Pop Warner football in Inglewood.

Jalon Daniels, who now starts at quarterback for undefeated Kansas, played Pop Warner football in Inglewood.

(Family photo)

“They lacked the confidence in him, had their set guys,” says Elijah Jackson, Daniels’ teammate at Narbonne who would also transfer to Lawndale and now plays at Washington. “People wrote him off, but he always kept God in his life. It didn’t faze him, not one bit, and I actually think it made him better, put a chip on his shoulder.”

Says James, his godfather, “The time at Narbonne taught him about the politics that are involved with sports, with who’s going to play and who’s not going to play.”

Daniels could see that he was going to have to become more proactive for his trajectory to change. But hey, a little luck never hurt anybody either.

In the spring of 2018, Daniels went to Baldwin Park to clock some 40 times and throw the ball around with a cousin. He ended up making a connection with Tim White, a former wide receiver at Arizona State who had been signed by the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens. White saw Daniels throw and called him over to show him what he could do. They exchanged phone numbers, and within a week, White reached out to Daniels with an Instagram link to contact Fisher, the quarterback trainer with the Throw to Win. football development program.

“Coach Fisher, my name is Jalon Daniels, and I go to Narbonne High School,” Daniels wrote to him. “I wanted to ask if I could get in some work with you.”

“Absolutely, we can get it in,” Fisher wrote. “You free this weekend?”

Of course he was. But there was still the matter of persuading his parents to let him start working with a quarterback coach based out in the San Fernando Valley.

“Here in L.A., everyone has three trainers and two quarterback coaches, they’re in seven different camps every other weekend, and he wasn’t that kid,” says Dubois-Daniels, his stepfather. “He knew we weren’t going to spend a ton of money on it.”

Star could now see how much Jalon wanted to earn those coveted stars. She said yes.

The Daniels family was about to get serious about football. They just hoped it wasn’t too late.

Sam Fisher accepted the depths of human error, and, given how deep the pool of talented players is in Southern California, he was certainly open to the idea that Tim White had just delivered him a hidden gem.

That day in April 2018, Fisher liked what he saw on first glance.

“He’s 5-11, about 6 foot, he’s ripped, got a good-looking back, an athlete, looks almost like a running back,” he recalls.

Then, Jalon Daniels got the ball in his right hand.

“He grabs it and he throws it about 70 yards,” Fisher says, “and I was like, ‘What in the world is happening right now?’ And he did it again, and the ball just jumped out of his hand naturally. He had one of those whips like he would fling it, coming out of his hand looking like Aaron Rodgers. He had the biggest arm I’d been around in high school.”

Now, you didn’t always know where the ball was going after Daniels spun it. That wasn’t the young man’s fault, though. He just hadn’t gotten the personalized coaching, and he had a lot of catching up to do.

“I usually work with kids segueing into junior high, early high school, where he was like 15, which was way uncommon,” Fisher says. “First off, I’m surprised I didn’t know who he was just from how naturally gifted he was and him throwing the ball like he did and not having anyone know who he was. It was just bizarre.”

For his work with Fisher to pay off, Daniels needed to find a school where he could show off all that he was learning. Lawndale, a proud program in the South Bay, needed a quarterback, and assistant coach Andre Gaines heard about Daniels’ ability. He transferred and won the starting job in the August heat.

“He was everything we needed for us to win that year,” Gaines says.

Lawndale wasn’t known for producing college quarterbacks, and most games they didn’t need him to do much. The team’s star was running back Jordan Wilmore, who had offers from a lot of big schools. Recruiters weren’t stopping by that fall to check in on Daniels.

Even after Lawndale made its historic run to a 14-2 season and the state championship, things stayed pretty quiet.

Jalon Daniels (6) is surrounded by friends and family after a Kansas football game.

Jalon Daniels (6) is surrounded by friends and family after a Kansas football game.

(Family photo)

“Honestly, when we won state, I didn’t necessarily look at it as I’m going to start getting college offers,” Daniels says. “I really felt like there was way more I need to improve on.”

Finally, in February 2019, that first scholarship offer came, from Tennessee Martin of the Football Championship Subdivision level.

“He was elated, man, he was pumped up,” says Fisher, though he knew Daniels could set his sights higher. “He always had a real gracious demeanor with everything. I was a lot more frustrated than he was. I was extremely frustrated because I knew what he was, and I couldn’t understand what the heck was going on.”

Fisher was pitching Daniels to his contacts all over the Power Five, including UCLA. He thought Boston College would be interested, but no. Air Force and Army, with their triple-option attacks, would soon offer Daniels, but that was just proof the secret still wasn’t out about the kid’s arm.

During the June before his senior year, Daniels’ family took him all the way to Memphis for a camp, hoping to get some fresh exposure. Sure enough, that gamble paid off with an offer from Middle Tennessee State, a proud Group of Five program that uses a more traditional spread offense. Daniels visited the campus and gave the staff his commitment.

Weeks later, Jalon Daniels got his three-star recruit designation.

“He was like, ‘How do I get four?’” Dubois-Daniels recalls, laughing.

“I think it’s that there’s still an underdog story out there. So often in recruiting, if you’re not discovered by the time you’re 14, 15 years old, a lot of people give up on you.”

— Brent Dearmon, former senior offensive analyst at Kansas, on what Daniels’ recruiting experience says

Overall, Daniels felt content. He could play his senior season with the freedom of knowing he was going to honor his promise to his mother that he would play college football on a full scholarship.

But there was one more twist to come.

In the middle of the 2019 season, Kansas coach Les Miles promoted Brent Dearmon from senior analyst to offensive coordinator.

“One of the first things I did was stand on the table for Jalon to be our quarterback in that class,” Dearmon says, “and Coach Miles just said, ‘I’m not going to sign a quarterback I don’t see in person.’”

After Kansas’ and Lawndale’s seasons were complete in December, Dearmon and Miles flew to L.A. and found their way to Lawndale. Dearmon knew what would happen once Miles saw the arm in action. They offered Daniels a scholarship later that day.

The night before early signing day, Daniels gave Middle Tennessee State’s coaches the bad news. In Lawrence, Kan., there was a quiet confidence about how big of a heist they’d just pulled off.

“Not a lot of people knew,” Dearmon says. “It was, ‘Who is this kid?’ And for us, we think that’s the best recruit we’ve signed since we’ve been there.”

Today, at Kansas, it isn’t just Daniels’ arm that is drawing people in. It’s his smile, too — and the fact that every Saturday his performance is bringing smiles to the faces of KU football fans for the first time since 2007.

The Jayhawks, by far the worst Power Five team of the 2010s, are 4-0 with wins over West Virginia, Houston, Duke and Tennessee Tech. They are one spot removed from the Associated Press top 25 and would surely vault much higher in the rankings with another win Saturday against Iowa State. They are the best story going in college football and their quarterback has been the difference.

Daniels’ astonishing stats — he has completed 71% of his passes for 890 yards and 11 touchdowns, while rushing for 320 yards (8.4 yards per carry) and four touchdowns — don’t fully explain his impact. It’s the joy he plays the game with, the dancing celebrations and the unstoppable exuberance that earned him the role of team captain as a 19-year-old.

Kansas quarterback Jalon Daniels passes the ball against West Virginia in November 2021.

Kansas quarterback Jalon Daniels passes the ball against West Virginia in November 2021.

(Ed Zurga / Associated Press)

Dearmon, who now coaches at Florida Atlantic, watches Daniels from afar and he can’t help but see a bigger meaning in what’s unfolding amid the wheat fields of Kansas.

“I think it’s that there’s still an underdog story out there,” Dearmon says. “So often in recruiting, if you’re not discovered by the time you’re 14, 15 years old, a lot of people give up on you. And I think it’s a testament to two parents. His parents are phenomenal, and they never gave up on him, flew around the country to get him exposure. But also, a testament to a kid that worked his rear end off and got to a level that he knew he was. I think it just shows you, don’t give up on your dream.”

Thanks to Daniels, the Jayhawks and their tortured fans can now dream big, too, of something special happening like that miracle 2007 run under former head coach Mark Mangino to a 12-1 season and an Orange Bowl win over Virginia Tech.

Nothing about Daniels’ start at KU portended such promise. During the pandemic season in 2020, Daniels was thrust into the starting lineup at 17 years old. The Jayhawks went 0-9, and his confidence was battered week in and week out.

That next spring, Kansas fired Miles after allegations surfaced of his inappropriate behavior with female staff while he was at Louisiana State. KU was suddenly trying to find a new head coach in April, and the school landed on Lance Leipold of Buffalo.

Leipold brought in Jason Bean, a transfer quarterback from North Texas, and the plan was for Daniels to redshirt and take a year to develop. That plan was scrapped late in the year when both Bean and backup Miles Kendrick were injured, leading to Daniels getting the starting nod at Texas.

That night in Austin, the Jayhawks shocked the Longhorns in overtime, winning 57-56 on a two-point conversion pass from Daniels.

“A sea of burnt orange got very quiet,” Dubois-Daniels recalls. “At that moment, I remember walking down that ramp, and you could feel that something was changing.”

Even in the midst of what could be a magical season, Daniels doesn’t have tunnel vision while reflecting on his journey.

“The road to getting where I am today isn’t easy, and I know it is not going to get easier,” he says. “This is just the beginning if I want to make it to the NFL and all that. Because I’ve been the underdog most of my life, I was always overlooked because of stuff I couldn’t really control such as my height, getting with quarterback coaches too late and such. I was late to the party, and I can’t blame anybody but myself for that. But God put me on this path for a reason.”

The nation will be watching to see where the path leads for Daniels and Kansas. As of now, the kid who didn’t crack the varsity roster at Narbonne is sixth in the latest odds for the Heisman Trophy — right there behind fellow L.A.-area stars CJ Stroud of Ohio State and Young, last year’s Heisman winner from Alabama.

How far has Jalon Daniels come? One of the best indicators came recently when Daniels noticed he had a new follower on Instagram: Bryce Young.

https://www.latimes.com/sports/story/2022-09-30/jalon-daniels-college-football-kansas How L.A.’s Jalon Daniels went from unknown to Heisman hopeful

Emma Bowman

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