LSU’s Jayden Daniels should win the Heisman, but he won’t

The most valuable player in college football has several connotations in college football’s NIL age. Off the field, Arch Manning and Shedeur Sanders accrue higher earnings and interest on the free market. LSU’s Jayden Daniels has climbed from 57th to 11th in On3’s NIL Valuation Ranking. Name brand recognition is the only thing keeping him outside the top-10.

Daniels breakthrough is a testament to him actualizing the potential he showcased as the No. 2 dual-threat-quarterback prospect in the country at Southern California’s Cajon High School. Following three up-and-down seasons at Arizona State, Daniels entered the transfer portal and landed in LSU where he immediately hit a groove he never found as a Sun Devil. In Daniels’ first year under center, LSU racked up 6,344 yards—the second highest total in school history, trailing the 8,526 yards accumulated in 15 games en route to the 2019 natty. This year, Daniels has attempted 115 fewer passes, but already eclipsed his 2022 yardage total and nearly doubled his touchdown production without a significant upgrade in turnovers. If the season ended today, Daniels would own the third-highest passer rating in FBS history, between Mac Jones in 2020 and Joe Burrow’s 2019 milestone season.

Daniels is the straw that stirs LSU’s drink, but defensive lapses have locked LSU out of the playoff race and simultaneously tanked Daniels’ Heisman odds, but his total package has made him more money through improved draft positioning than his upgraded NIL worth. If that sounds familiar, that’s because it’s a similar path as the one forged by Hendon Hooker a year earlier as college football’s most celebrated late bloomer. Hooker is already out of sight and out of mind these days, but he was also graded as a first-round prospect before tearing his ACL last November. After transferring from Virginia Tech in 2021, Hooker lit up the SEC skies for Tennessee by connecting on 58 touchdown strikes to five interceptions in two seasons and spearheaded an offense which led the nation in scoring.

Daniels has hit those same notes a year later, except he’s two years younger and significantly more dangerous outside the pocket. Daniels has the LSU offense floating on cloud nine and by nearly every metric, Daniels is the most valuable quarterback in college football. He leads the nation in Bill Radjewski’s opponent-adjusted EPA per play. Is that too esoteric? Let’s talk about splash plays. Caleb Williams and Michael Penix are viewed as the most dynamic playmakers in the country. Respectively, they are responsible for 55 and 57 plays of 20-plus yards or more. Daniels leads the nation by a football field with 76 such plays. Most impressively is that he resembled Hendon Hooker on wheels while rushing for nearly 1,000 yards already.

Against Florida, Daniels ascended to a higher plane. By the time he was done barbecuing the Gators, he’d ascended to another plane in the record books by becoming the first player to throw for 350 yards and rush for 200 in a single game. For added measure, he also tapped in with five touchdowns. His 85-yard end zone scamper on Saturday was the Heisman moment he’s been searching for since his arrival in Baton Rouge. That is if the Heisman were actually awarded to college football’s best player instead of the most prolific quarterback on a top-5 team. Daniels would be running away with that, too, as the propellant behind the most explosive offense in the country. Daniels’ Midas touch has the Tigers ranked third in scoring offense, first in third down conversion rate, first in total offense, sixth in passing yards per completion and first in passing efficiency. They’re even a top-10 rushing offense whose leader is one of the most efficient quarterbacks of all-time.

If it weren’t for a toothless LSU defense soiling themselves every week they’d be comfortably seated in the national championship hunt. Alas, their defense entered the week outside the top 100 in rushing defense, sacks, tackles for loss, third-down percentage and red-zone scoring percentage. Harold Perkins, last year’s freshman phenom, was inexplicably moved to inside linebacker for the opener and has been a symbol of the Tigers’ defensive mismanagement.

A head injury suffered during the fourth quarter of their showdown with Alabama left Daniels one touchdown pass shy of Burrow’s record for consecutive games with three touchdown passes. But it also exemplified the drop off LSU’s offense undergoes when Daniels is not on the field. He is no miniature passer either. He’s a lean 6-foot-4, just like Hooker, and can easily complete passes over the middle, which makes him even more tantalizing. Daniels was a hidden gem in plain sight. But that’s all about to change.

 Follow DJ Dunson on X: @cerebralsportex

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