In the education of a quarterback, some lessons are more important than other ones.
For B.J. Daniels, an athlete growing into the position, the instructions start with this: For crying out loud, keep away from trouble.
Think of it as the thought process of an airline pilot: Avoid crashes and pretty much everything else is going to work out. Mountain climbers have to keep from falling, and bungee jumpers need to make sure they have less rope than it takes to reach the ground, and scuba divers have to stay on the outside of the sharks.
Daniels? He has to keep the ball away from the guys in the wrong-colored jerseys.
Lately, the importance of ball control seems to have dawned upon Daniels, a sophomore who has turned around his season, and in so doing, has helped turn around his USF team. The maturation has resumed, and the frustration has lessened, and suddenly the criticism has been silenced. Once again Daniels looks like more of a threat to the opposition than to his team.
There for a while, it was easy to wonder. In the Bulls' three losses so far this season, Daniels threw nine interceptions and didn't have a touchdown pass. Suddenly the quarterback who was last year's brand new toy looked skittish and out of synch. Some Bulls fans flayed him as if he were the main course at the alumni barbecue.
It was right about then that the light seemed to come on for Daniels.
No, he is still not the quarterback of Skip Holtz's standards. He hasn't made enough big plays, and there are times it seems the Bulls' coaches want to see more before they completely trust him.
On the other hand, Daniels has become worlds better than he was early in the year.
In the Bulls' past three games, all victories — games so close that a mistake could have changed the outcome — Daniels was a different quarterback. He had one interception and five touchdown passes. Think of it like this: In the Bulls' three losses, Daniels had a college quarterback rating of 59.5; in the past three games, it was 177.6. Because of it, the Bulls play their biggest game of the year Saturday against Pitt.
"He's becoming a quarterback,'' Holtz said. "He really is. The things we ask him to do, he's done very well.''
There was a time when Holtz was as frustrated as anyone else. Holtz can recall a conversation when he told Daniels that he was a good-enough athlete to play another position, but if he wanted to keep playing quarterback, he was going to have to make some changes.
Holtz believes it was the criticism that motivated Daniels to be a better quarterback.
"B.J. is a very proud young man,'' Holtz said. "He wants to be good. He hadn't endured a lot of criticism in his college career here, but he went through some after the interceptions against Florida and West Virginia, and missing some opportunities against Syracuse (the losses). I think it hurt him.
"He rolled up his sleeves and said, 'All right, what do I have to do? I don't want to be that.' I give him a lot of credit. He didn't throw his arms up and make excuses. He didn't point his fingers at other people. He said, 'You know what, that's not me. I want to be a quarterback, and what do I have to do to get it done? Who do I have to read, and where do I have to drop? What am I looking for?' ''
Daniels doesn't quite put it that way. He says he knew the criticism was out there but didn't pay attention to it. He says it was the losing that bothered him.
"When you lose, everyone has something to say,'' Daniels said, grinning. "But it wasn't ever direct stuff. It would come from areas where I don't go. I don't take a newspaper because of where I live, and I don't go on the Internet.
"Criticism can come from anywhere — family, friends, teammates, TV, newspapers. You have to learn to trust the people in your circle, the guys who are with you when you're down, the guys who were with you from the beginning.''
And so Daniels kept playing, and he kept learning. Isn't that the point of being a college student? Isn't that the point of being 21 years old? Isn't that the point of playing quarterback?
"He's learning how to manage the game better,'' said offensive coordinator Todd Fitch. "He's learning to harness his emotions and play within the system.''
"He's learning to throw away from the defenders much better,'' Holtz said. "I think he's seeing the field better.''
For a quarterback such as Daniels, however, there is a fine line between playing smart and playing instinctively. It's the difference between driving too fast and driving too slow.
"I don't want him be so robotic it takes away his playmaking ability,'' Holtz said, "but I also don't want him to drop back and go over there and then over there and then over there and throw it. I want it to be a progression, a read."
Somewhere in the middle, there is success. The Bulls need Daniels to protect the ball, but a few more big plays from him wouldn't hurt. Last year Daniels had 21 passes and eight runs of 25 yards or more. This year that's down to 12 passes and no runs.
Is that because defenses are paying more attention to him? Is that because Daniels is still trying to find his comfort level? Is he still an athlete learning to be a quarterback?
"I've learned a lot this year,'' he said. "I really have. Be consistent. Be a guy you can count on on and off the field. And keep bad things from happening. Sometimes you can lose a game before you have a chance to win it.''
Say this for Daniels: He has some fight in him. He's competitive enough, he's talented enough, and he's hungry enough.
Saturday there is another assignment for him to complete.
Pass this one and perhaps the applause will return.