How Jalon Daniels turned his own underdog story into the story of Kansas football

Kansas quarterback Jalon Daniels returned to his car after class on campus one day last week. A stranger greeted him there, in a parking lot neighboring the university’s School of Business, with a note and an apology.

The man had crashed into Daniels’ Dodge Durango, leaving enough damage to exchange insurance and fill out some police-provided paperwork. Half an hour passed, and eventually Daniels opened the driver’s door to go about his day, when this stranger suddenly put it all together.

“Wait,” he said. “Are you Jalon Daniels?”

“I am.”

“Man, you had a great game Saturday,” and as Daniels re-tells this story, he impersonates something resembling a teenager meeting his or her idol. “I’m so sorry for hitting your car, but you had such a good game Saturday.”

There was a time, in the very recent past, when the quarterback of the football team was less prominent in this college town than a student manager for the basketball team or a server at The Wheel. A time when some football players probably figured it best not to be recognized in public.

In about a 48-hour span, Daniels appeared on SportsCenter, College Gameday and Fox’s Big Noon Kickoff, not to mention the requests from national podcasts and publications. As he ends this particular interview, he learns that it’s his final media obligation of the week, and he responds with a literal sigh of relief.

“Bet,” he says, and it’s at least the dozenth time in the last 20 minutes he’s flashed a smile that nearly everyone you ask about Jalon Daniels will mention first.

The most coveted athlete in Lawrence these days is not a basketball player, but rather a football star who has revived a program that so many of his predecessors could not. KU, the team picked to finish dead-last in the Big 12 this year, is 5-0 under second-year head coach Lance Leipold, whose name is now floated with every job that opens up. Here’s where I’ll remind you the Jayhawks had won five games over their previous six years combined.

And yet on Saturday morning, College GameDay is plugging Memorial Stadium into its Google Maps for the first time when TCU visits for an 11 a.m. kickoff.

This, however, isn’t about the resurrection of a program too long mired in embarrassment. It’s about the conductor of its orchestra, as his offensive coordinator likes to term it, the star of a sold-out show that used to play in front of half-empty theaters, and that was on a good day.

Daniels is the team’s leading passer and its leading rusher, accounting for 16 total touchdowns. The quarterback at Kansas — Kansas! — is ninth in the Vegas odds to win the freaking Heisman.

He is perfectly cast for all of this, if you know him, because that resurrection story? It’s not just the story of KU football.

It’s his own.

‘You’re gonna be angry you didn’t recruit me’

The ball rested at the 16-yard line, a third-down play with just over 2 minutes left in a California high school state championship game.

At the end of a conversation about a quarterback he first calls an elite leader and then an elite player, Lawndale High School coach Travis Clark wants to walk through the ins and outs of one particular snap in hopes he can encapsulate both.

Clark had called timeout before the play, prompting his junior quarterback to jog to the sideline. On third and 1, with Lawndale clinging to a 2-point lead, Clark told Daniels the play: a quarterback sneak.

“He looked at me — and this is something he would do all time, even when we were in some serious, heated moments on the football field — he just gave me this wink and this smirk,” Clark said. “Like, Don’t worry about it, Coach; we’re going to make this happen. And you just felt like everything was all right.”

Moments, later, the quarterback sneak indeed gained the first down, but the quarterback just kept on moving. Sixteen yards later, he was into in the end zone, a play that would help ice Lawndale’s first state championship in school history.

Kansas quarterback Jalon Daniels (No. 6) celebrates his touchdown against Iowa State with teammate lineman Dominick Puni last Saturday in Lawrence.
Kansas quarterback Jalon Daniels (No. 6) celebrates his touchdown against Iowa State with teammate lineman Dominick Puni last Saturday in Lawrence.

Daniels threw for 2,351 yards and 26 touchdowns that season, and he ran for 940 yards and 10 more touchdowns.

So how did the Jayhawks steal a proven dual-threat quarterback — a proven winner who would turn around their program — out of the figurative backyard of the Pac-12 schools he dreamed of representing?

They didn’t.

Because didn’t have to.

Those schools didn’t want him.

Oh, they saw him play. It’s not like they can claim they never knew him. Heck, several of Daniels’ Lawndale teammates from that same 2020 recruiting class are playing in the Pac-12 today. But while college coaches stopped by on Friday nights to eventually present a running back or a cornerback with a scholarship offer, they provided Daniels something else entirely.

Advice.

“They were telling me to move to receiver,” Daniels says. “So right then and there, I already knew that I was not going to stay home and go to college. It was a stereotype that I needed to try to run away from.

“I can take your feedback, and I’ll just use it as motivation. I’m going to go to a different school in a different conference, and you’re gonna be angry you didn’t recruit me.”

Daniels starred on his youth football teams, which is no surprise given his present-day ascension, but he recalls how parents of kids on other teams would approach him after the game and gush about his potential future. Daniels developed a dream to play for Oregon, a fan of quick-footed De’Anthony Thomas because he, like Daniels, had probably been told once or twice he was too short for his position.

By high school, Daniels knew that wasn’t his reality, and college recruiters weren’t the only ones supplying the clues. At Narbonne, his first high school, Daniels once got demoted from junior-varsity to the freshman team. He was a sophomore.

Ignored that clue, too.

“I knew I could play quarterback,” he says.

A year later, he transferred to Lawndale for a new opportunity. But concerned the stereotype of a run-only quarterback would follow him eight miles north, same as it had followed him since youth football, he told his new coach, “I want to be like Aaron Rodgers.”

KU junior quarterback Jalon Daniels speaks with reporters at KU football’s Media Day.
KU junior quarterback Jalon Daniels speaks with reporters at KU football’s Media Day.

Maybe that would convince someone he was capable of playing quarterback.

“OK,” Clark, the Lawndale coach, replied. “But you’re going to have to give me some Michael Vick, too.”

Surrounded locally by a handful of top high school passing prospects, Daniels closed in on signing day with a commitment to Middle Tennessee State. And by the way, to receive that offer, he needed to travel to Memphis just to get noticed. His family had traveled frequently, trying to find the exposure that, somehow, winning a state championship in California had not been enough to provide.

But then came Kansas. The school’s offensive coordinator at the time, Brent Dearmon, had created a spreadsheet, of sorts, to analyze potential quarterback recruits. Dearmon came to conclude that Daniels would be one of the country’s top prospects if not for his height, and eventually he sold then-head coach Les Miles on it, too.

KU was not only the lone Power Five school to offer Daniels; he says they were the only ones to visit Lawndale specifically to see him, not one of his teammates. That meant something.

Middle Tennessee State, though, had told him if he even took an official visit elsewhere, they’d revoke their scholarship offer. That bothered Daniels, who deemed it a slight on his character.

The night before signing day, he called coaches from both schools, one call easier than the other.

He was headed to Lawrence. On a day in which national headlines are reserved for five-star recruits, a three-star quarterback who ranked as the 2,305th best player in the nation drew a reaction in Lawrence — one that was indicative partially of the state of the program and partially of the thought of where it could soon be.

“I almost did a backflip,” Dearmon said on that signing day, “but I realized I probably would have broke my neck.”

The turnaround in Lawrence

Shortly after he signed, Daniels began exchanging text messages with Cobee Bryant, a cornerback in the same 2020 recruiting class.

Following the same ilk, surely, of many before them, they talked of plans to turn around a team that had a worse decade-plus than any other Power 5 school. And that wasn’t a particularly close race.

Kansas quarterback Jalon Daniels leaps into the end zone for a touchdown, one of the five he scored in Houston earlier this season.
Kansas quarterback Jalon Daniels leaps into the end zone for a touchdown, one of the five he scored in Houston earlier this season.

Daniels didn’t need to convince himself of the appeal to that story. He lived that story.

“It’s tough to go to a program that hasn’t been winning and win,” Daniels says. “It’s easy to go to a program that’s already winning. But which one is going to make you tougher?”

A pause.

“I’m used to being the underdog,” he adds. “God didn’t bring me here for no reason.”

He’s been tested plenty, though. A head coaching change. Dearmon left, too. (He’s now the offensive coordinator at Florida Atlantic.)

And, man, the losing. As a 17-year-old freshman, Daniels got hit so hard that his incoming offensive coordinator, Andy Kotelnicki, had a difficult time re-watching the tape when he arrived as part of Leipold’s coaching staff.

Daniels didn’t get the job as a sophomore, not initially, because of an injury in fall camp. Then, the Texas game happened.

KU, a 31-point underdog, turned to Daniels for a game in Austin late in the season, and he responded with four touchdowns in a stunning 57-56 win. That was the first hint of what was to come.

But this? On the Heisman list? At Kansas?

The growth of a player is reflected within the growth of a 5-0 team, and it’s true the credit falls to parties well beyond the quarterback. For starters, it required the right leadership to flip this thing, whether the honeymoon is five weeks or five years.

Iowa State linebacker O’Rien Vance (No. 34) pressures Kansas quarterback Jalon Daniels during the first half of last Saturday’s game in Lawrence.
Iowa State linebacker O’Rien Vance (No. 34) pressures Kansas quarterback Jalon Daniels during the first half of last Saturday’s game in Lawrence.

But in Daniels, they found the right personality — the right personal history, let’s frame it — to provide the behind-the-scenes and on-screen leadership of a season that will have lasting effects in Lawrence.

Daniels often mentions his coaches, particularly how quarterbacks coach Jim Zebrowski has cleaned up and quickened his throwing motion. Kotelnicki has built the offense — a multiple, pro-style offense that uses spread components — around the strengths of Daniels, and, yes, that includes his throwing ability. For the opening month of the season, nobody in the game had better passing numbers.

The background, though, doesn’t leave him. He’s still trying to convince a few along the way that he’s a pass-first quarterback who can run, but doesn’t necessarily have to run. Still using the Aaron Rodgers example. Still trying to break a stereotype that he believes cost him a high school starting job and college interest.

Ahead of each game, Kotelnicki and Daniels dissect the game plan. Recently, as they outline the initial 15 snaps of the game, Kotelnicki will turn to Daniels and simply ask which 15 plays he might prefer. He wants him to direct the offense.

Kotelnicki shared that note this week, three days before KU tries to improve to 6-0. Before a follow-up question would come, Kotelnicki added one more detail.

“It’s 15 passes, by the way,” he said.