Turn the clock back to 2018 for a second. A freshman phenom quarterback named JT Daniels was tearing up the Pac-12 at USC. Offensive coordinator Graham Harrell was an up-and-coming star play-caller at North Texas and on his way to joining Daniels in Los Angeles. And West Virginia was finishing up its 16th winning season in 17 years. Soon, it would hire an exciting young coach named Neal Brown, who was coming off three straight 10-win seasons at Troy.
Fast forward to the present day and these moments feel like distant memories. Daniels transferred to Georgia as the presumed starter following a season-ending knee injury in 2019, but former walk-on Stetson Bennett IV eventually pushed him out en route to a national title. Harrell was fired with Clay Helton’s staff at USC last year. Brown sits with a 17-18 record at WVU, the program’s worst three-year stretch since 2014.
On Wednesday, the three officially partnered up in Morgantown after Daniels committed to the Mountaineers as a transfer. Now, Brown, Harrell and Daniels all have a rare opportunity to rewrite their stories on the same stage.
West Virginia has been wildly inconsistent on offense under Brown despite running a quarterback-friendly, Air Raid-inspired system. After ranking No. 8 nationally in total offense in Dana Holgorsen’s final season, the ‘Eers have never finished higher than 50th in any of Brown’s three seasons. In 2021 alone, WVU scored fewer than 20 points six times and quarterback Jarret Doege ranked among the three least-efficient passers in the Big 12.
Perhaps the biggest letdown was that Brown’s passing offense sputtered right as the rest of the program came together. Running back Leddie Brown rushed for 1,000 yards in each of the past two seasons. Defensive linemen Dante and Darius Stills led top-40 defenses, including the No. 4 unit in 2020. Regardless, the passing offense left WVU in the cellar.
Reuniting Daniels and Harrell is perhaps the splashiest move possible to address the issues head on, though. Harrell, a former record-setting Texas Tech quarterback, has a reputation of his own around producing quarterbacks. He took Helton’s offense at USC from No. 83 to No. 20 in one offseason after arriving from North Texas and kept the passing production on track during a final 2021 effort in which USC bottomed out. Harrell was mentioned for a handful of bottom-tier FBS jobs, but fixing West Virginia’s offense gives him a major résumé-building opportunity.
Daniels learned under Harrell at USC in 2019 and entered that season as his starting quarterback before suffering a torn ACL in the second quarter of the season opener. Still, Daniels has completed 64% of his passes for 4,840 yards and 32 touchdowns in 21 games and flashed the talent that made him a five-star recruit. After picking West Virginia, Daniels steps back into a comfortable situation.
“It definitely helped knowing Graham coming into it and having a really good relationship with him,” Daniels told ESPN. “Knowing that I trust that offense and the system, and I believe in it. I also feel really comfortable with Coach Brown and the ideas that he has and the way that he runs a program.”
West Virginia has been begging for any glimmers of hope at quarterback for years to tie the team together. Receivers Sam James and Bryce Ford-Wheaton both cleared 40 catches and 500 yards receiving in 2021. All five offensive linemen are back, including All-Big 12 honoree Zach Frazier. Leddie Brown is off to the NFL, but Tony Mathis and Clemson transfer Lyn-J Dixon makes for an intriguing pairing at running back.
The timing couldn’t be more important for Brown. West Virginia is set to play hated rival Pitt for the first time in more than a decade on Sept. 1. The Panthers are coming off their first outright conference championship in program history while the Mountaineers are backsliding. Oh, and by the way, Daniels’ former USC teammate Kedon Slovis is the presumed starter at quarterback for Pitt.
Three weeks later, West Virginia plays rival Virginia Tech in another spotlight game. If West Virginia loses those two rivalries — especially if the losses are embarrassing — the Mountaineers could be looking for a new coach before conference play even gets underway. Win, though, and Brown suddenly has a clean slate.
The expectation is that West Virginia is a quarterback away from entering the Big 12 Championship Game chat. With Harrell and Daniels in Morgantown, that will finally be put to the test.