THE FACT THAT Jayden Daniels wasn't wiped out by the stifling humidity of Thibodaux, Louisiana, in late June is a good sign he's acclimated to living in the South. He's all smiles and positive energy as he works campers at the Manning Passing Academy and rubs shoulders with the first family of quarterbacks: Peyton, Eli and Archie.
Talking to reporters during a lunch break, the California native keeps coming back to a word he wouldn't have used a year ago: comfortable.
Daniels wasn't a counselor here last summer. That's because he was still unpacking his things after transferring from Arizona State to LSU, where he was still competing for the starting job and still trying to find his way around campus.
He found his way around an unforgiving SEC schedule just fine in his first year with the Tigers. The game against Florida was wild and Auburn was so loud he says he couldn't hear himself think. But he survived, leading LSU to wins in both games, not to mention the biggest game of them all -- home against No. 6 Alabama when he ran for a 25-yard touchdown in overtime and then completed a make-or-break, 2-point conversion for the walk-off win. The season was a trial by fire that he's on the other side of now, looking for what's next.
Daniels doesn't flinch when a local reporter nonchalantly compares his first season to that of Joe Burrow's -- the implication being he too can make a jet-fueled leap in Year 2 a la the former LSU legend who went from simply being efficient in 2018 to simply winning the Heisman Trophy and a national championship in 2019.
Is that too much to ask? Well, LSU is No. 4 team in ESPN's Football Power Index, and Daniels is tied for the second-best odds to win the Heisman, according to Caesars Sportsbook, trailing only last season's winner, USC's Caleb Williams. So maybe it's not that far-fetched. Daniels steers clear of the hype. He says he's been working hard this offseason and has a firm grasp on the playbook. Teammates say they've seen a change in him, too -- more assertive, more himself. Coaches hope that translates to a more explosive passing game.
Daniels says he's taken charge of the offense. Then he reconsiders and takes charge of offense, defense and special teams.
"This is my team," he says. "This is how we're going to run things. This is the standard we're going to hold ourselves to if we want to accomplish our goals."
In rhetoric and in practice, how far LSU goes is up to him.
DANIELS WASN'T THE only fish out of water in Baton Rouge last year. Who can forget Brian Kelly's first attempt at a Southern accent the night he was introduced as coach at LSU? Family's a big deal among Irish Catholics like Kelly, but fam-uh-lee? That was, uh, different.
A year later, Kelly laughs off his early snafu.
"I think my accent is pretty good and has gotten better throughout the recruiting process," he says. "It depends on if I'm in northern Louisiana or southern Louisiana. Sometimes I get over to Lake Charles, it's got to change a little bit."
The fact that he can differentiate between regions is a good sign he's catching on. But, really, the reason he has won over LSU fans so quickly has nothing to do with his diction and everything to do with those 10 victories last season -- none more important than against rival Alabama.
Players say Kelly brought an attention to detail and discipline that was lacking under the previous staff. And he quickly instilled a sense of self-belief, which paid off in big games.
Asked what's one thing people should know about LSU this season, running back Josh Williams and defensive lineman Mekhi Wingo say the same thing: "We're coming."
But Kelly is a realist when he sits with ESPN in his office in June.
"Look, Alabama has been a model of consistency year in and year out. Georgia has been a model of consistency year in and year out," Kelly says. "We can't hang that moniker yet. We went from last to first -- that's not consistent. So what does that leave us? The ability to win and be the best team that day. That's it. So if you're measuring that, can we be the best team on that particular day and beat anybody? Absolutely. But can we be consistent? That's what we're going to try to prove."
While the offense was solid overall, Kelly says, "There were some ups and downs."
As he studied the film from a season ago, Kelly saw the good and the bad from his quarterback. And he was reminded how early on they hadn't exactly given Daniels "the keys to the car." Kelly says there were a lot of parameters on what Daniels could and couldn't do. So, of course, when they spread the field, backed him up in the shotgun and told him to drive, he wasn't ready.
"He had to learn how to do all those things," Kelly says, "and by the end of the season he got pretty good at it."
Daniels didn't have to do much in a 63-7 Cheez-It Citrus Bowl win over Purdue, completing 12 of 17 passes for 132 yards and a touchdown. But Kelly thought he was "outstanding." Kelly could feel Daniels' confidence. He loved seeing Daniels fit the ball into tight windows and push the offense vertically -- "all the things we would have loved to have seen in Game 1, but it was a process."
Daniels finished with 2,913 yards, 17 touchdowns and three interceptions. While he threw the most catchable ball in the country (83% catchable pass rate), he rarely took shots downfield, ranking 103rd in the rate of pass attempts 20-plus yards downfield (10.6%).
Kelly says we were watching a young QB grow up. All Daniels needs to do is, "Let it go."
The question, though, is how much Kelly wants him to pack up and run, scrambling for extra yards. Because he did that a lot last season. He had 885 rushing yards and had more carries than LSU's top two running backs combined (186 to 173). Josh Williams, who ran for 552 yards, doesn't mind. "If the defense gives Jayden an open lane every time," he says, "I hope Jayden goes for 1,000 yards."
But Kelly doesn't have an exact number in mind. It's not as simple as saying Daniels should have 10 or 11 or 12 carries per game, he says. What he's looking for is whether Daniels is nervous in the pocket -- "Is he getting out of a good pocket just to run? Or is that a compressed pocket and a collapsing pocket that he's making a play out of?"
If Daniels -- a 6-foot-4, 210-pound senior -- wants to become a first-round pick in the NFL draft, Kelly says the first thing he needs to do is improve his pocket presence. That and making better anticipatory throws, letting the receiver run into space or throwing away from defenders.
While Daniels hasn't made "a ton" of those throws, Kelly says, "He started making them later in the season."
Jim Nagy, a former NFL scout who runs the Senior Bowl, agrees. He was at LSU's 2022 season-opener against Florida State and could see just how "discombobulated" the offense was and how uncomfortable Daniels was running it. Nagy says Daniels appeared "frenetic" at times.
But Nagy was there again in-person for the win over Ole Miss and followed along through the rest of the season, and what he saw led him to call Daniels the most improved player in the country. He wasn't perfect, Nagy says, but he stuck with his reads longer and fit the ball into tighter windows.
Nagy loves Daniels' composure, which teammates rave about. "Fourth quarter, 2 seconds left," Williams says, "he's going to be the calmest guy you've ever met."
Nagy also says Daniels is more athletic than he gets credit for. He was at the Manning Passing Academy and says there's "no doubt" Daniels has an NFL-caliber arm.
So is the Joe Burrow comparison fair? While Nagy's hesitant to pin those expectations on anyone, he doesn't dismiss it out of hand.
"I'll start by saying this: we have Jayden at the same spot on the board right now that we had Joe going into his senior year," Nagy says. "It's essentially like a fringe Day 2-3 grade, kind of a fringe top-100 grade. And, man, that was a magical year for Joe. Joe's a pretty special guy when it comes to how he's wired as a competitor and leader. But he's in the same spot. And very similar -- they didn't ask too much of Jayden last year, just like they didn't ask a lot of Joe his first year there.
"Joe answered the bell and we'll see if Jayden can do that."
Now does Daniels have the benefit of a Ja'Marr Chase and Justin Jefferson to throw to? Probably not. That team was loaded, producing 30 total NFL draft picks from 2020-22.
But Nagy says he believes Daniels will have better protection this season, which could go a long way in his development.
If he can consistently navigate the pocket and make the anticipatory throws Kelly talked about, Nagy says, "Then now we're cooking."
ABOUT A MONTH after spending the week with the Mannings in Thibodaux, Daniels trades in shorts and a T-shirt for a sharp black suit and crisp white button-up shirt. At SEC media days in Nashville, Tennessee, he's ready for his close-up, sporting a fresh haircut, a dazzling diamond-encrusted chain and chunky diamond stud earrings that catch the light of every camera pointed in his direction.
Asked about the pressure to continue the championship run on campus started by the baseball and women's basketball teams, Daniels gives those players their props and says, "Hopefully we can follow up with one."
But that's as far as he's willing to go. "We have to take it day by day and really just enjoy the process," he says in pitch-perfect coachspeak.
During a day of probing questions from hundreds of sound-bite-hungry reporters, Daniels shows his trademarked fourth-quarter poise. That is, until a reporter asks him about his chances of winning the Heisman.
"I mean ..." he says before pausing a beat to compose himself.
He smirks and laughs nervously.
"I don't really look at that stuff like that," he says. "I'm blessed and honored to be part of a prestigious award like that. Hopefully when I win football games, hopefully my odds go up, but my main thing is really just focusing on helping the team win football games. If individual success comes with it, then it comes with it."
Daniels is much more comfortable talking about the team and the work they've put in this offseason. He picks apart his first season at LSU with ease, saying how it was a "night and day" difference from Arizona State -- where he threw 32 touchdown passes in 29 games over three seasons -- and how they learned as a group during that late slump against Arkansas and Texas A&M, "You can't just go out there and think you're going to roll past a team with a good record."
On the one hand, he says he wants the running backs to have more rushing yards than him this season. But on the other hand, "I'd just say that's probably the dynamic of my game that makes me that much more dangerous."
"So I don't want to take that from my game," he adds, "but I want to keep growing as a quarterback and as a passer."
And where exactly does he think he can get better?
"The deep ball," he says. "Just letting it go and giving my guys a chance to go out there and make a play. I felt that probably the biggest leap that I took as a quarterback this offseason is building that timing with those guys and knowing how they run routes and giving them opportunities to go make plays downfield, which I know they can do at a high level."
Daniels calls Malik Nabers, who broke out with a combined 291 yards and two touchdowns against Georgia and Purdue, a "go-to" receiver with the type of power and speed you can't teach. Nabers, Kyren Lacy and Brian Thomas have all "stepped up and showed out" this summer, Daniels says.
And he's confident in the growth of the line, too, which he says gelled down the stretch. Last season, coaches tried to cover up for freshmen tackles Will Campbell and Emery Jones. "It'll be less about that and more about exerting our will against people," Kelly says, adding that they're recruiting as if Campbell and Jones could receive first-round grades after their junior seasons.
"I feel like we can have a top offense in the country," Daniels says in one of his boldest statements of the day.
Unlike Williams and Wingo, Daniels doesn't say of LSU this season, "We're coming." It's just something some of the guys say, he explains, rather than a mantra or team motto.
"We just know what we're capable of," he says. "If we handle our business, we'll probably be there."
There, as in, with a shot at playing for a national championship.
Wouldn't that be a helluva leap for a quarterback and a coach to make after only one year in Baton Rouge?
Daniels isn't backing away from those lofty expectations. And he should know better than anyone what they're capable of.
This is his team after all.