What made B.J. Daniels such a sudden success last season was the way the young USF quarterback could beat opponents with his arm and still show some of his best instincts on wild, open-field scrambles that made him the Bulls' leading rusher.
New coach Skip Holtz and his assistants have worked hard to get the sophomore to rein in those instincts, at least for a second or two. As the Bulls open a new era with tonight's opener against Division I-AA Stony Brook at Raymond James Stadium, fans will see a new Daniels, one the coaches hope can offer that dual-threat excitement in a more contained, traditional pass-first offense.
"He's learning every day, and what we have to convince him of is to let the system execute," offensive coordinator Todd Fitch said. "When things break down, you go make plays with your feet. But when the system is there, execute the call, and big plays will happen."
Holtz wants Daniels to run less, especially on designed running plays, if only because he has no established backup ready to step in should Daniels get hurt. The challenge is reining him in without taking away the versatility that a defense must account for when Daniels has the ball.
"I have a grasp of the offense now, and they just want me to use my athletic ability when things break down," Daniels said, sounding a lot like his coach. "Everything doesn't work perfectly like you draw it up on the boards, so you just take advantage when it's there."
Daniels threw for 14 touchdowns and rushed for nine last season, but his production could be even better in the new offense, junior guard Jeremiah Warren believes.
"You'll see a big change," Warren said. "(Daniels is) more comfortable now, and I believe it really fits him. He's matured in the last year. He's trusting his line more, which is great. We're fighting for him even harder now. We're known for having quarterbacks who just take off, so it was nothing new (last year), but it's nice to know where your quarterback is going to be."
Daniels' elusiveness helps to keep plays alive longer and allows receivers to get open downfield. On his first series last fall after taking over when starter Matt Grothe sustained a season-ending knee injury in the season's third game, against Charleston Southern, Daniels connected with receiver Dontavia Bogan for a 50-yard touchdown. In his first start, the next week at Florida State, Daniels threw a 73-yard touchdown to Sterling Griffin and a 77-yard pass to Theo Wilson to set up another score.
Daniels' new coaches don't want him going for the big payoff quite as often and hope to see him improve on his 53.7 percent completion percentage, a dropoff of nearly 10 percentage points from Grothe a year earlier.
"He has learned to see the game a little bit slower," quarterbacks coach Peter Vaas said. "He's not looking for the sugarplum play every time. He's looking to be basic and fundamental, and as a result, you're a lot more functional."
Daniels' running was USF's best offensive asset last season. He led the Bulls with 772 rushing yards, but that includes yardage lost on sacks. Take away that lost yardage and he rushed for more than 1,000 yards despite barely playing in the first two games.
Between Grothe and Daniels, the Bulls have had a quarterback lead them in rushing for four straight seasons. Holtz doesn't want that streak to continue.
Vaas calls Daniels' new running "organized chaos" and said it will still create big plays. "It's something you want to have, when it's your third or fourth option. You don't want it to be your first option," he said. "(Daniels is) never forgetting he has his feet as a tremendous weapon."
Defensive coordinator Mark Snyder didn't fully appreciate the threat of Daniels running the ball until USF's second preseason scrimmage, when coaches stopped whistling plays dead as defenders got near the quarterback and let him play on. The former Ohio State assistant said he hasn't encountered such a dynamic threat at quarterback since he faced Indiana nearly a decade ago.
"What I saw I have not seen since I stood on the sidelines and had to coach against Antwaan Randle El," Snyder said of the ninth-year NFL pro who got the nickname "Slash" for his versatility. "I think B.J. throws the ball a little better, but it was impressive to see. His scrambling ability is something we have not been exposed to."
Holtz had watched extensive video of Daniels breaking loose on runs last season, but that second scrimmage reminded him that though he doesn't want Daniels taking off immediately, it's probably not a bad thing every once in a while.
"He is a hard son of a gun to tackle," Holtz said. "He can move around and make things happen back there with the ball. When somebody gets to him, he's not necessarily down.
"He can make an awful lot of things happen and really make this offense move with what he can do with his feet. And I think he's getting better as a quarterback."