Making the case for LSU football's Jayden Daniels as a strong 2023 Heisman Trophy candidate
BATON ROUGE — LSU football coach Brian Kelly took a risk last spring when he decided to bring in Arizona State quarterback transfer Jayden Daniels from the portal.
The Tigers already had three scholarship quarterbacks: Myles Brennan, Garrett Nussmeier and Walker Howard. Brennan had SEC starting experience. Nussmeier had a talented arm and could start in 2023 with Brennan gone. Howard was a top-40 freshman signee who could eventually push Nussmeier.
But in came Daniels anyway.
"I think we started with just wanting to add more competition (to the room)," Kelly said before the start of last year's spring practices.
In the end, the move paid off for Kelly. Daniels won the starting job and held it for the rest of 2022. He led LSU to a 10-win season, an SEC West championship and the Tigers' first home win over Alabama since 2010.
That success made the news of Daniels returning in 2023 an exciting one for most LSU fans.
"I felt like I had unfinished business in college," Daniels said prior to LSU's Citrus Bowl win over Purdue. "So I wanted to come back and compete for a national championship."
And Tiger fans should be excited; LSU has a Heisman Trophy candidate on its hands.
Daniels, while playing under a new coaching staff, working behind a new offensive line and throwing to new weapons, was an above-average SEC quarterback in 2022. He threw for 2,913 yards, completed a career-best 68.6% of his passes and only threw three interceptions, seven fewer than in his final season at Arizona State.
He was also one of the best running quarterbacks in college football. Daniels rushed for a career-high 885 yards and 11 touchdowns. He generated 4.52 yards after contact per rush attempt and forced 54 missed tackles, according to Pro Football Focus, leading all FBS quarterbacks with at least 70 rush attempts in both categories.
As a result, Daniels showed flashes as a Heisman candidate last season, especially in the Alabama win. But a slow start and dud performances against Arkansas and Texas A&M eventually killed his case.
However, it's hard to see how Daniels doesn't iron out those kinks as a fifth-year senior in 2023, especially with the majority of LSU's offense coming back.
LSU is bringing back five of its top six offensive linemen. Although the unit struggled at times last season, its youth – particularly at the tackle spots – suggests it should only get better.
Offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock is also returning. The mix between Daniels and Denbrock wasn't always perfect last season, but another year working together could mean volumes for both player and coach.
"I think his confidence has grown. I think his ability to make plays in the passing game has grown. ... So we're excited to get to work on those things," Denbrock said prior to the Citrus Bowl.
But, maybe most importantly, top wideout Malik Nabers is coming back, along with the majority of the Tigers' receiving room.
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Every Heisman candidate at quarterback needs his star wide receiver. And in LSU's receiving corps last season, nobody clicked as well with Daniels as Nabers. The combo hit the ground running in spring and preseason practices, translating their work into 72 catches for 1,017 yards for the sophomore wideout in 2022, both team highs.
"The mantle of (top) LSU wide receivers, it's (Nabers') opportunity now," Kelly said after the Citrus Bowl.
Daniels will also have plenty of other options to throw to, even if Nabers is the focal point. Brian Thomas Jr., Kyren Lacy and Chris Hilton Jr. are back. Alabama transfer Aaron Anderson provides an explosive option in the slot. LSU also added four-star signees Shelton Sampson Jr., Jalen Brown, Khai Prean and Kyle Parker.
Even at tight end, where Daniels developed a strong rapport with freshman Mason Taylor last season, LSU improved by adding Ka'Morreun Pimpton, Mac Markway and Jackson McGohan.
Crucially for Daniels, many of the Heisman frontrunners from this past season aren't coming back. CJ Stroud, Bryce Young, Hendon Hooker, Stetson Bennett and Max Duggan are all off to the NFL. The reigning Heisman winner – Caleb Williams – is returning, but history suggests he won't win again. There has only been one back-to-back Heisman winner in the award's history, and that was nearly half a century ago when Ohio State's Archie Griffin won in 1974 and '75.
Daniels will be joined by plenty of notable challengers for the Heisman in 2023, including Drake Maye, Devin Leary, Sam Hartman, JJ McCarthy, Bo Nix, Blake Corum, Michael Penix Jr. and Cam Rising, among others.
Daniels' odds of hoisting the Heisman in 2023 are +2000, according to FanDuel Sportsbook. But, even after some had questioned Kelly's decision to bring him to LSU in the first place, Daniels is still just as strong of a Heisman frontrunner as any of his potential competitors.
Koki Riley covers LSU sports for The Daily Advertiser and the USA TODAY Sports South Region. Email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter at @KokiRiley.
This article originally appeared on Lafayette Daily Advertiser: Jayden Daniels: Heisman Trophy realistic for LSU football QB in 2023