Jalon Daniels can be college football's most exciting player … if he can stay on the field

LAWRENCE, Kan. — The goal for Jalon Daniels is simple and within sight.

Daniels just wants to play college football for Kansas, uninterrupted, from the start of the season until the finish. That’s it. Any addendums can come from others. The proclamations and accolades around him surely will appear, just as they did last summer. Daniels’ brilliance when he’s on the field, after all, is both undeniable and enthralling.

But he knows the only achievements that matter stem from actually playing the games. No one remembers the Big 12 preseason offensive player of the year, which Daniels was in 2023, if he plays in only one Big 12 game because of a back injury. Even the buzz around Daniels during the first half of the 2022 season, when KU started 5-0, faded after he missed a month because of a shoulder injury, only to return and deliver a staggering performance against Arkansas in the Liberty Bowl — 544 passing yards and five touchdowns. He still earned second-team All-Big 12 honors that fall.

When Daniels plays, he’s an absolute must-see, especially entering a college football season lacking some sizzle at quarterback with Heisman Trophy winners Caleb Williams and Jayden Daniels off to the NFL. In 12 games over the past two seasons, Daniels has 2,729 pass yards and 23 touchdowns, averaging 13.1 yards per completion. But he has also gone 291 days since his last game, and has averaged only 6.25 games per season in four years with Kansas.

There’s a hold-your-breath feeling around one of college football’s most breathtaking players. If Daniels can just get to Aug. 29, when Kansas opens its season against Lindenwood, the possibilities for both him and his team are tantalizing. National honors are on the table. So are a Big 12 title and a College Football Playoff spot, unfathomable when Daniels came to Kansas in 2020.

The return is within reach, and Daniels’ recovery has been smooth. But the next phase comes with no guarantees, as anyone who has gone through a back injury — elite athlete or not — can attest.

“I don’t ask God to allow me to be able to play to the best of my abilities,” Daniels said. “Every time I pray, I just ask to allow me to play every game this season. That’s been my No. 1 goal, especially since I’ve been hurt, the one thing that I love to do.

“I didn’t come to college not to play college football.”

NINETY MINUTES BEFORE kickoff against Texas in late September, Jayhawks coach Lance Leipold looked over at Daniels and realized something wasn’t right. Daniels had appeared in the previous three games and performed well, displaying accuracy (74.7% completions) while attacking downfield and showing good mobility. He had practiced well during the week before the Texas game, and had not relayed any concerns at the team hotel.

But Daniels’ back flared up in warmups in Austin, causing a sharp pain. He went to the training room and then the locker room, where Leipold saw the quarterback “in tears.” The regression added another layer of mystery to an injury that didn’t make much sense in the first place.

“The craziest part for me is I’ve never had any problems with my back per se,” Daniels said. “It was kind of new to me.”

Unlike a broken bone or a torn ligament, which generally have clear treatment plans and recovery timelines, Daniels’ injury occupied a gray area. Leipold initially told local reporters that Daniels had back tightness, which limited him in camp. Daniels practiced at times and was announced as the starter for the season opener against Missouri State, but he didn’t play after warming up.

After sitting out against Texas, he was labeled day-to-day but did not appear on the sideline for the team’s next game against UCF. He watched in street clothes as Kansas faced Oklahoma State, and Leipold expressed hope that the quarterback could return the next week against Oklahoma. Daniels warmed up in uniform for the Sooners game but again did not play.

Start. Stop. Start. Stop. Uncertainty followed Daniels for more than two months.

“If you do something that people can see, the outside people understand it,” quarterbacks coach Jim Zebrowski said. “When they can’t see it, they don’t get it. You can’t see a cast or a sling. That’s the hardest part.”

Leipold made it clear Daniels would take the first snaps when ready, but the weeks went by with no return.

“I don’t know if I’ve done an F job or a B-minus job in trying to protect the best interest of Jalon Daniels and what needs to be shared and what’s not,” Leipold told ESPN in April. “People think they need to know whether he’s practiced today or he hasn’t. I’ve tried to make it the best for Jalon and for our football team on where he’s going with that.”

The haziness around the injury and the status updates fueled speculation that Daniels didn’t want to return. He could preserve a year of eligibility, become one of the top quarterbacks on the transfer market and cash in at a higher-profile program.

“There weren’t a lot of answers at the time or public outlook, so he’s getting a lot of hatred,” said running back Devin Neal, one of Daniels’ closest friends. “It was really attacking him from multiple different angles. That was the tough part about it. He wasn’t able to really say, ‘OK, I’ll be back now.’ It was a wait-and-see type deal: ‘How am I feeling today?'”

Neal, who knew the truth about Daniels’ injury, was upset by what his friend endured. Other veterans, such as cornerback Cobee Bryant, checked in with Daniels nightly.

“It was tough to watch him go through that,” strength and conditioning coach Matt Gildersleeve said. “You’re seeing all the bulls— on social media and you’re just like, ‘If you knew this kid and what he would do to be out there playing right now, you would never question his will and his desire.'”

After missing six straight games, Daniels posted a video on social media, confirming he would return to Kansas in 2024. He alluded to the speculation about his intention, saying, “You want something to talk about? Talk about this: I’m not done yet, and I’m not going anywhere.”

His season was over. His comeback was just beginning.

KANSAS OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR Jeff Grimes doesn’t need a tutorial on back problems.

“I’ve got four jacked-up disks right now, got two injections and trying to avoid a surgery,” said Grimes, 55, a former offensive lineman at UTEP. “When your back hurts, it just affects everything you do …”

Daniels has consulted with multiple back specialists. Leipold told Daniels’ parents that if they weren’t happy with the care, the school would “check another corner of the country” to find more options. A steady communication flow exists between Daniels’ doctors, Kansas’ doctors, the athletic training staff and Gildersleeve, who leads Daniels’ rehab and worked with him individually for the first six weeks of the offseason.

Gildersleeve has focused on maintaining Daniels’ confidence during the process, recognizing that soreness and setbacks would occur along the way. Back injuries present a different mental challenge than more common ailments.

“The way this happened, it’s just, nothing really happened, and then all of a sudden, your season’s over,” Gilversleeve said. “That’s scary to think about. It’d be one thing if you got in a car accident. You’re like, ‘Something plausible happened, I just need to not get in a car accident.’

“You have a lot of confidence. But when something out of the blue happens, it’s hard.”

They also have worked on developing core strength, a focal point for all athletes, but especially quarterbacks. In hindsight, Gildersleeve would have had the 6-foot, 220-pound Daniels do more core work before the injury, because he throws the ball with so much velocity and torque.

The key this summer is to gradually increase Daniels’ volume of throws. The plan includes no “acute spikes” in workload, Gildersleeve said, to minimize the risk of reinjury.

Those around Daniels don’t expect he will have any physical limitations if he’s cleared to play. The mental challenge, meanwhile, will linger until Daniels gets back to the game field — and stays there.

“Everything else,” he said, “will handle itself.”

WHEN DANIELS TURNED 8, he had his first big at-home birthday bash, a Packers-themed party orchestrated by his mother, Star. Jalon had started playing youth football for the South Bay Packers in Hawthorne, California. The team had the same logo and colors as the professional version from Green Bay, which naturally became Jalon’s favorite pro team.

“My jumper was Packers theme, my cake was Packers theme, we had some side cakes that looked like [Nintendo] Wii remotes,” Jalon said. “She just did as much as she could to be able to provide for me, and that’s what I love about her.”

Despite growing up near Los Angeles, one of the most saturated areas for quarterbacks and QB development, Daniels was an outsider to the scene. He didn’t start working with a quarterbacks coach until the playoffs of his junior year at Lawndale High School. Daniels had relied on natural playmaking instincts in elementary school and even early on at Lawndale, where he was “humbled” as a freshman by all that quarterbacks had to do.

He absorbed as much as he could on his own while relying on Lawndale’s coaches, who gave him some individual attention while also monitoring the school’s other college prospects. Daniels showed significant improvement as a sophomore and into his junior year, but he had no recruiting rating and was behind in the college selection process.

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Jalon Daniels connects for 15-yard TD pass

Jalon Daniels connects for 15-yard TD pass

“I never realized that their process started so early,” he said. “I may have only taken three unofficial visits, to Cal Poly, to Memphis for a camp and one to Middle Tennessee after they offered me. My people didn’t really know the whole recruiting route or how to go Division I, how to be able to develop your child. Honestly, my family and I learned on the fly.

Daniels didn’t know much about Kansas, other than selecting the Jayhawks’ all-time roster in the NBA 2K video game. But he flipped from Middle Tennessee to Kansas on signing day in 2019, and started six games as a true freshman in 2020, leading the winless Jayhawks in rushing attempts (73) and rushing touchdowns (3).

Jalon has long fantasized about playing in the NFL, not only for himself but because of what it would mean for his mom.

Star raised Jalon on her own until marrying Tyrone Dubois-Daniels in 2015. She worked different jobs, mostly in insurance claims. But Star’s dream, as she showed with Jalon’s party, is event planning. She already has planned a family cruise in 2026. Several years ago, she started a party planning business, but still works her main gig with an insurance company.

“She hasn’t had all the time that she would like to be able to put all her all into it,” Jalon said. “I’m definitely going to try and line that up for her. My stepdad is in IT and he started his own IT business. Being able to help them get into those paths, and be able to do what they want to do, it means the world to me because going to the NFL is something I want to do.

“I want to be able to say: I play football for my job.”

EVERYONE AROUND KU is pulling for Daniels because of what he has gone through, because of his value in the program’s rise and because of what a full season could mean for his future.

Other quarterbacks with injury histories have helped their NFL outlooks with uninterrupted, productive seasons. Michael Penix Jr., the 2023 Heisman Trophy runner-up selected No. 8 overall in the NFL draft by Atlanta, is the most recent example. Daniels respects Penix’s journey but looks at his own as distinct.

“It’s kind of hard to be evaluated on playing football when you’re not able to be out there doing it,” he said. “I’m still standing here at the University of Kansas, trying to make a name for myself. As much as people want to say I have these accolades, this much media hype and this and that, I personally don’t feel like I’ve done anything yet. I’m still trying to make my way.”

Daniels reported no setbacks during the spring. He made some throws in practice that Gildersleeve had never seen before. He enjoyed taking some snaps from under center, which he hadn’t done since high school. He and Zebrowksi worked on decision-making and the need to not always make the miraculous play when the right one could be just getting to the next down. He continued to mentor Kansas’ other quarterbacks, who will need to step in, just as Jason Bean did the past few years, if something goes wrong again.

The next step is to get through the preseason with no flare-ups, while continuing to build confidence, all the way to, and ultimately through, the season opener.

“I expect him to be out there, I expect him to play,” Leipold said. “Does that mean he’s going to play all 12? My plan is that he does.”

Daniels has the same plan and won’t be deterred by the past.

“It’s just overcoming adversity,” he said. “I’ve been a football player my whole entire life. You never really know what’s ahead, so I’m trying to stay where my feet are. I want to finish what I started.”

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