NEW YORK — Here he sat, the whiplash Heisman Trophy favorite, the leader among four finalists in camera tripods around him with seven, his sweater LSU purple, his earrings gleaming gently, his hair gone from early-season braids into late-season glorious Afro, his bearing rather regal and his presence a reminder that you never know.
In a city where you never know anyway, you never know who might turn up on Heisman weekend in December, and that includes Jayden Daniels, 22 going on 23, who had never been to New York and didn’t figure to turn up around Times Square 21 months ago when he transferred from Arizona State over to LSU.
So now he found himself saying the city had impressed him with “really just how big it is, like, actually seeing it in person.” He told of the guidance he got from 2019 winner and fellow Tiger Joe Burrow: “You’re going to be doing a lot [on the Heisman weekend], so get your mind prepared.” He used a phrase both key in his path and commonplace in the era of widened eligibility: “My five years of college.” And as he reached the verge of perhaps becoming the fifth transfer to win the Heisman Trophy in the past seven ceremonies, he said he laments missing out on the College Football Playoff while saying he has much more in football to prove.
“Sounds like you might be coming back,” a questioner said at one point.
“I don’t have any more eligibility,” Daniels replied matter-of-factly, the question understandable in the era.
All told, he noted “a surreal moment for me” after “growing up watching this event.”
It’s a surreal moment for all of those addled with college football interest, really, after Daniels’s path from San Bernardino, Calif., (as the No. 2 dual-threat quarterbacking recruit behind Spencer Rattler) to Arizona State in 2019, to LSU in March 2022, to 40th place in quarterback rating in fall 2022, to this. This: No. 1 in quarterback rating with a celestial 208.01, the passing yards at 3,812, the rushing yards at 1,134, the total yards per play at 10.71, the touchdown passes at 40, the interceptions at four. That’s dazzling even though Heisman prognosticators in August did tend to include Daniels in their published thoughts.
Two things seemed clear from his presence.
One: If you want to win a Heisman, transfer into LSU and wait for the second year, as Burrow did when he rocketed from 65th place in the passer rating list in 2018 to first in 2019, throwing a preposterous 60 touchdown passes in 15 games and picking up the Heisman along that trail.
Two: Some years, the Heisman comes down to a worthy deluge of numbers, with Daniels’s candidacy calling to mind 1988 and Barry Sanders, whose 2,628 rushing yards that year remain unsurpassed in the Football Bowl Subdivision. The choice can shout from one game in the great season of the player amid a very good season of a non-contender for the national championship, as when Sanders rushed for 215 for Oklahoma State (which finished 10-2) against mighty Oklahoma and when Daniels passed for 372 and rushed for 234 for LSU (which has gone 9-3) against non-mighty Florida, but the sum of that — 606 — wowed reasonable people.
He epitomizes a skill of the era: play extension.
“Yeah, I think he can extend the play, really,” that noted student of football film, fellow finalist and Ohio State wide receiver Marvin Harrison Jr., said from a dais nearby (with finalists Michael Penix Jr. and Bo Nix at the others). “When the play breaks down, it may not be exactly how the coaches drew it up, but he can still find a way to make a play with his legs, scrambling, [and] I don’t know how many rushing touchdowns he had, maybe like 10 [bingo]. Then, obviously, he can make all the throws that you need.”
Long throws became a well-known agent of the improvement, of course, not to mention disheveling defenses by freeing up his other skills.
No one knew this in full, of course, as Daniels headed in 2019 for Coach Herm Edwards’s Arizona State, having chosen it in a late decisional surge over Utah, UCLA and California, among other offers. He got to Tempe, Ariz., finished 23rd in passing efficiency with 17 touchdowns and two interceptions as a freshman, but then 65th with 10 and 10 in 2021 (after just four games in the coronavirus-shortened 2020). When he wandered into the merry-go-wild of the transfer portal and turned up at LSU in early March 2022, it seemed curious but not particularly loud.
It did, however, place his nimble smarts in the daily company of LSU Coach Brian Kelly and longtime Kelly offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock, the tandem just starting out then in Baton Rouge after once working together at Notre Dame. In the football calendar that bleeds out so far beyond the actual football games, they didn’t have much time together that spring.
By the Citrus Bowl of a 10-4 season, before a 63-7 win over Purdue there, Daniels spoke of feeling things come together in a Tennessee game of Oct. 8, a 40-13 home loss during which he actually completed 32 of 45 passes for 300 yards. Denbrock said to reporters then, “What has been remarkable for me is the development he has made as a thrower, and I think his accuracy has improved.” He referred to Daniels’s “movement keys,” and Daniels echoed that and said, “I had so much more football that I needed to learn that I thought I didn’t [need to learn], so there is another level that I can tap into as far as growth.”
By November 2023, in a season without a clear-cut Heisman favorite and the Florida-LSU game blaring that 606, Kelly campaigned with: “He’s the best player in the country.” By Friday in Times Square, Daniels told of gratefulness toward Arizona State, where Edwards’s “pro” coaches had taught him “how I conduct myself as a pro,” and then toward LSU, how he “didn’t want to come back and be the same person,” how he took a look in the proverbial “mirror” and how this all “goes back to the work that we put in in the offseason. Last year we didn’t really have an offseason with each other. The main thing was just trusting each other.”
Now, rather suddenly, he found himself in the American capital of cosmo for his first time, thinking about a Saturday night ceremony and saying, “I’m very thoughtful about what I wear,” and, “I’m going to try to go out there and be the best dressed.”