Dynamic Daniels leads No. 22 LSU against Auburn as SEC West race heats up
Thu, Oct 12, 2023
NCAAF News (AP)
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - LSU coach Brian Kelly marvels at how much quarterback Jayden Daniels is doing to keep his team in contention in the SEC West.
Daniels' 35-yard touchdown run while playing through a rib injury in the fourth quarter of a 49-39 victory at Missouri last week was a case in point.
"His ability to run when things are not there is unique," Kelly said as No. 22 LSU (4-2, 3-1 SEC) prepared to host Auburn (3-2, 0-2) on Saturday night. "His speed, his durability, his toughness puts him up there with the great ones."
When Daniels arrived at LSU as a transfer from Arizona State in 2022, he was an exceptional scrambler - quick, agile, and explosive, with a graceful stride that disguises his breakaway speed.
In the season and a half since, Daniels has demonstrated an increasing knack for knowing not just when to run, but whether to run laterally to extend passing opportunities or vertically to gain yards on the ground. He also has exhibited an increasing patience in the pocket and an ability to deliver accurate throws moments before absorbing hits.
"I see those things and his quarterbacks coach and the offensive coordinator see the little things that he's doing under duress or under pressure or getting hit after he throws a very accurate ball that are starting to separate him from good to great," Kelly said.
Daniels has run or passed for at least four TDs in each of his last five games -- the longest such streak in school history. He also leads the SEC and ranks second nationally in total offense with 398.5 yards per game (328.2 passing and 70.3 rushing). At this pace, he'll have one of the greatest seasons by a QB in LSU history, perhaps behind only Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow during LSU's unbeaten national championship campaign in 2019.
Auburn coach Hugh Freeze counts himself among those who believe that if Daniels isn't in the 2023 Heisman discussion, "There's a problem."
"No one has stopped him," Freeze said. "He plays so effortless; literally, he runs for 40-yard touchdowns and looks like he's jogging, yet no one's catching him. And his balls are so accurate to those talented receivers. I just think it's a hard, hard task" to defend him.
Kelly points to Daniels' late go-ahead 29-yard touchdown pass to Malik Nabers last week as an example of the QB's development. Daniels first had to escape the pass rush and roll right to give Nabers time to break open.
The Daniels of early last season might have just tried to run for whatever he could get on the ground.
"He was not progressing through his reads. He was coming off them too soon. He wasn't staying in the pocket. He wasn't being patient," Kelly recalled. "He has fixed a lot of those things."
Auburn hasn't been able to get its passing game going this season, ranking 119th in pass offense behind Payton Thorne and backup Robby Ashford.
Thorne had more yards rushing (92) than passing (89) against No. 1 Georgia. However, Ashford had a career passing day in last year's LSU game, racking up 337 yards. It's the only time he has managed 300 passing yards.
"I do think you have to be balanced to win big games," Freeze said. "That has been the challenge for us to this point."
Concerned about a porous defense that yielded 706 yards in a 55-49 loss at Ole Miss on Sept. 30, Kelly put retired 82-year-old defensive coach Pete Jenkins back to work.
Jenkins' specialty is defensive line play, and his presence at practice appeared to help. The Tigers still yielded plenty of yards and points at Mizzou, but made enough plays to win.
"It's been great for me just to spend time with him and pick his brain about D-line play," Kelly said. "Just having somebody with his wealth of experience, where you can get into drill work and technique during the season, is extremely helpful."
VISITING TIGER STADIUM
Freeze was an Ole Miss assistant when he went to visit former Rebels coach Johnny Vaught.
"He says, 'Coach, just so you know, you have never truly never been the head coach at the University of Mississippi until you beat them Bayou Bengals in Baton Rouge," Freeze recalled. "And stood on the bleachers and let their fans know it.'
"I know what it meant to a lot of coaches to go play there. He might've said it a little differently than I just said it right then, but this is a special place to play for many coaches who have experience there."
AP Sports Writer John Zenor contributed to this report from Auburn, Alabama.
AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-football-poll"