TAMPA — When B.J. Daniels was introduced to college football stardom, he was an unblinking redshirt freshman, taking USF into his hometown of Tallahassee and knocking off Florida State and Bobby Bowden, a blur of scrambles and big throws.
Nearly three years later, you could argue the Bulls haven't been higher since. They have won at Miami and at Notre Dame. But the promising potential of Daniels, 33 starts into his career, is still unanswered: Is he the quarterback who can take USF beyond its reputation of upsets, promising starts and disappointing finishes?
"It means I've got to hurry up and do something," said Daniels, 22, who graduated in May with a degree in criminology. "It's my last opportunity to help out the team, to do whatever we can to win the Big East.
"There's a sense of urgency in really trying to step up as a leader on and off the field."
Daniels is one of 20 Bulls seniors tasked with the challenge of going from one conference win to one conference title in a single year. But as the quarterback, he is the most visible embodiment of USF's experiences — good and bad — over the past three seasons.
Each year has brought changes. He cut down on his scrambling then cut down on his interceptions. So the remaining goal is simply to help the Bulls cut down on their losses.
"What he's saying is, 'We came here to accomplish something, and we haven't gotten it done,' " USF coach Skip Holtz said. "With his commitment level, it's easy to look at him and say this is what you're looking for as a coach, a complete player."
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If Daniels simply repeats last season's numbers, he'll finish as the Big East's career leader in total offense, breaking the mark of 10,875 yards set by USF's Matt Grothe. (Grothe's torn left ACL in 2009 ended his career early and launched Daniels'.)
But Daniels' focus is the scoreboard, not individual honors.
"It's not about me. It's about this team," Daniels said. "At the end of the day, if we have a W, whether I have five touchdowns or five interceptions, the W is the only thing we care about right now."
For all the pressure and expectations to improve — no team with a losing record last year earned more votes in the preseason coaches' poll than the Bulls — Daniels remains lighthearted in his preparation, quick to joke with teammates and coaches.
When Daniels was USF's representative on the cover of the Big East media guide, Holtz tweeted his congratulations then pointed out Daniels was pictured holding the ball out away from his body.
"Obviously, we need to work on that ball security," Holtz wrote.
Jokes aside, Daniels understands the importance of limiting his turnovers, recognizing the value of throwing a ball out of bounds when receivers aren't open, of punting rather than throwing a risky third-down pass.
"As he continues to develop mentally, I think he's gaining more and more confidence," Holtz said.
"The more he understands everything going on on the field — not just the offense, but the defense, the protections, the routes — the more he understands it all, the more confidence he's playing with and the more confidence he's playing with, the more he's growing as a leader."
Daniels' improvement with interceptions last season — from 13 to seven despite throwing 120 more passes — came with many of his top receivers limited by injuries. His top returning receivers — Sterling Griffin, Victor Marc, Deonte Welch, Andre Davis and Terrence Mitchell — combined for 136 catches in 2011. A year earlier, they combined for one.
Add Florida transfer Chris Dunkley and freshman D'vario Montgomery, and Daniels' supporting cast could be much improved.
"I think he understands to be a great quarterback, it's about making people around you better," USF offensive coordinator Todd Fitch said. "At the end of the day, when you're a great leader, sometimes you sacrifice to make somebody else better. You're the orchestrator of the whole thing. You want to be the distributor.
"I talk to him about basketball. Great point guards make everyone better. That's what he has to become, and it has to be every day for him. He has to live it."
Fitch also has stressed improving in key situations such as third downs and the red zone, areas in which the Bulls improved in 2011 but still have room for progress.
"He has to be a third-down junkie," Fitch said. "That has to be his goal: I'm going to be the best third-down quarterback in America. Do you reach that goal? I don't know. We got better, but we're not where we want to be.
"Everybody knows he's a talented kid, phenomenal. At the end of the day, you're judged by whether you live up to your talent level, live up to your team's expectations. It's a lot to be burdened with, but that's why you play the position."
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USF's coaches are confident Daniels is mentally prepared to handle the pressure of leading a team with high expectations. That's where his legacy will be decided.
"I think the growth he has made has been really impressive," Holtz said. "He will largely be remembered as a quarterback predicated on how many games we win.
"He'll go down in my book as one of the better quarterbacks I've had the opportunity to coach just because of his athleticism and his growth as a player, a person and a leader."
Greg Auman can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @GregAuman.