TAMPA — B.J. Daniels likes to say that a quarterback is remembered by his last game, and for eight months, that hasn't been a bad thing at all.
In two up-and-down seasons as USF's starting quarterback, Daniels has seen both extremes of the quarterback spectrum — the euphoria of a hometown win at Florida State in his first career start, the disappointment of much of last season, then a resounding finish with one of his best games in USF's win against Clemson in the Meineke Car Care Bowl in Charlotte.
"To end the season on a good note was very big for our team," said Daniels, who was named the bowl MVP for his efforts. "That definitely gave us a lot of momentum, confidence. We call it swagger, and we try to keep it going for the season coming up. Right now, we're striving to get better and better."
As Daniels, 21, enters his junior year, he has the unfamiliar luxury of familiarity, with the same offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach for two years in a row for the first time in his four seasons at USF. As a result, there's a greater comfort level operating Todd Fitch's offense, something coach Skip Holtz sees as a major advantage for this fall.
"Three offenses in three years," Holtz said earlier this month. "There was a lot of, I don't want to say confusion, but I don't think there was a lot of confidence that he understood what everybody on the field was doing. Knowledge is power, especially at that position. Now all the sudden, with the same offense two years in a row, I've seen confidence and poise come out of him, and leadership ability. B.J. is really growing up and growing into what he can become."
Bulls fans have seen two Daniels in two seasons — the wild, elusive scrambler who rushed for a team-high 772 yards as a freshman, and a less mobile Daniels who rushed for just 129 yards in his final 10 games of 2010, with coaches afraid to risk injury to their only scholarship quarterback. Bulls coach Skip Holtz acknowledged that his staff had to limit Daniels' running because of the lack of a proven backup behind him.
"We were really restricted to how much we could run (Daniels) as the only quarterback on scholarship last year," Holtz said. "What you do with him not only has a lot to do with what he can handle, but how much depth do you have behind him. We put him in a glass bubble because we didn't want to have him take that kind of pounding being the only quarterback."
So the combination of running less and not fully grasping the new offense kept Daniels out of rhythm, at least until late in the season, when the game started slowing down and the quarterback started clicking within the offensive scheme. Daniels can appreciate how well he understands the system now, because last year, that wasn't the case at all.
"Last spring, I didn't know what they were talking about," Daniels said. "We were on two different pages. Another spring, another season, knowing the terminology, knowing what they're talking about, being able to have a conversation about certain plays and different adjustments, that's definitely a big help."
Daniels was limited by injuries last year and missed a game and a half with a bruised quad. But for much of last season, as Daniels went, USF went, with one touchdown pass and 10 interceptions in the Bulls' four losses he played in, and the opposite — 10 touchdown passes and three interceptions in USF's eight wins. His numbers were especially rough in the Bulls' biggest games — 5-for-20 for 84 yards and four interceptions in a loss at Florida, and 20-for-30 for 119 yards (fewer than 6 yards per completion) with three picks in a loss at West Virginia.
But the Clemson game is his last game, and USF's coaches point to it as a model for how he can run their offense — 20-for-27 for 189 yards and two passing touchdowns, with another touchdown on the ground. Holtz said he plans to "take the reins" off Daniels more this season, allowing his scrambling to perplex opposing defenses the way it did in 2009. It's already creating problems for his own defense.
"He's making good reads. There's a number of times in film where he's abusing the linebackers with his eyes. He's looking one way, dropping it in over the middle," said junior linebacker Mike Lanaris. "The words "That's a good ball' have come out of our mouths in meeting rooms a bunch of times. I say that over and over. He's obviously getting smarter, getting comfortable with the offense."
As a fourth-year junior — he played briefly in 2008 but earned a medical redshirt — Daniels is now experienced enough to command respect from his teammates beyond that automatically given to a starting quarterback. He's had teammates over to his house for dinner, organized summer workouts, spent extra time with his receivers and backs, all with an eye toward being another leader for a young team.
"By the position I play, there's a position of leadership attached to that name as a quarterback," Daniels said. "I've been trying to do everything I can to make myself more credible, on and off the field."
Daniels' commitment to football could be seen a month ago, when he decided to quit posting on Twitter.com, deleting an account that had built up more than 1,000 followers. Daniels remains a relatively private person — he jokes about his half-season on USF's basketball team as a freshman guard, and how his only teammate left on campus from that team is forward Augustus Gilchrist, with whom he remains friends.
He brags on his younger sister, Laurel, a standout flag football player in high school in Tallahassee who had 12 interceptions and earned first-team all-state honors as a junior last season. And he talks about how his father, Bruce, will be only a tiny bit conflicted next month when Florida A&M comes to Tampa to play the Bulls — the elder Daniels works as a director at FAMU's gymnasium, the Al Lawson Center.
With 22 career starts, Daniels has the most of any Big East quarterback, and with upgrades around him at receiver and running back, there's confidence that USF can be much improved on offense. The Bulls scored 16 or fewer points in all five of their losses last year, but with a new Daniels, comfortable in his offense and breaking loose on big runs more often, there's excitement that his next game could be better than his last.
"I think the sky's the limit," Daniels said of his team's hopes of a first-ever Big East championship and more. "We have a goal and it's attainable."
Greg Auman can be reached at email@example.com and at (813) 226-3346. Check out his blog at tampabay.com/blogs/bulls and follow him at Twitter.com/gregauman.