TAMPA — The relaxed, laid-back calm that B.J. Daniels now carries himself with on the football field may best be seen in a meaningless play early in last week's win at Syracuse, when the Bulls held a 3-0 lead.
Coming out of a Syracuse time out, Daniels lined up as an inside receiver on the left side, surprising not only the Orange defense but his own coaches as well. After an intriguing second or two, he jogged back over behind center, took the snap and threw an incomplete pass on third down.
"We try to throw the defense off," Daniels said, laughing. "They were actually yelling, 'Wildcat!' and we've never run that this entire year."
Coach Skip Holtz, you see, preaches to his players not to show their formation too early coming out of a timeout, and this was his quarterback's way of obliging his coach. Holtz and his staff have heard criticism from fans who don't like to see Daniels smiling and even joking with opponents late in games during the Bulls' four-game losing streak. Make no mistake: The coaches are happy to see their quarterback at ease on the field.
"You'll hear people say, 'He's too relaxed,' " quarterbacks coach Peter Vaas said this week, preparing for today's home game against Miami. "That's been a conscious effort to get him to be that way, to get him to play calm and under control. That doesn't mean you're not concentrating or not focusing. You're more just 'Aaaahh. I can handle this.' I want him to smile. I want him to be relaxed. That's part of his personality. It shows he's in control."
Even with the Bulls just 5-4 this season, Daniels has taken major steps forward, cutting down on the mistakes that limited his first two seasons as a starter. After 22 interceptions in those two years, he has just five this season. The lack of turnovers is what fans see as the biggest difference in Daniels this season, but the coaches say there's a bigger transformation that has taken place internally.
"The No. 1 thing with his play that people don't see on a day-to-day basis is he's learned how to manage his emotions," offensive coordinator Todd Fitch said. "He's a high-strung athlete. A thoroughbred, I used to say last year. In the past, when things weren't going well, he was on the bench and pouting. But he's learned to slow his mind down, learned how to communicate with people around him, and how to play the next play, good or bad. That's where I think he's really grown."
Statistically, Daniels is vastly improved, on pace to set many USF single-season passing records. Vaas said the most obvious difference is the redshirt junior is reading defenses better, and as a result, isn't throwing risky passes anymore.
"A year ago, you'd see B.J. make a throw and you'd go, 'Oh my God, what the heck is he looking at?' " Vaas said. "Whereas this year, he won't make the throw, and you'll ask, 'Why didn't you throw that?' and B.J. will say, 'I saw the linebacker coming in,' and when you watch it on tape, that's exactly it."
Vaas sets a reasonable expectation for his quarterbacks of one interception for every 50 passes attempted, something Daniels fell well short of the past two years.
"A year ago, B.J. threw one interception for every 18 passes that he threw. That's horrendous," Vaas said. "Now this year, I don't know it off the top of my head, but my guess is like 1 out of 60 (it's 1 in 60.6). Those kind of numbers are very, very good. We need to keep it up."
Combine the emotional maturity with the familiarity in his second year in the same offense, and Holtz sees an entirely different player leading his offense.
"The game was moving in fast-forward. The way the game has slowed down for him, it's slowed down his blood pressure, his heart rate," Holtz said. "He's standing back there in the pocket. He's poised. He's making good decisions. He's relaxed, comfortable, confident. I think it's a real testament to the way he's grown as a person, as a leader. … I've never had a quarterback that has made the progress from one year to the next as B.J. Daniels has from last year to this year. I don't know that we could ask any more from him."
Daniels politely disagrees, saying his success only goes as far as the success of the team he's trying to lead. With a 5-4 record and three games remaining, he's determined to finish the season strong, knowing USF's next win gets the team bowl-eligible for the seventh year in a row.
"I always feel like quarterbacks are measured by wins," the 22-year-old Tallahassee native said. "I'm trying to help my team and put us in a position to win, but we have to continue to put up W's."
Daniels has struggled against Miami in the past, with just 157 yards of total offense in six quarters against the Hurricanes, limited by injury to playing a half last season. But as has been the case throughout this season, USF's coaches are confident they have a different quarterback leading the team today.
"Everybody matures at different times," Fitch said. "The emotion, the maturity, the preparation, the understanding, all those things have kind of clicked."