University of South Florida quarterback B.J. Daniels received his fair share of criticism during an up-and-down 2010 season.
Unjustly served? Hardly, Bulls coach Skip Holtz says.
Finishing a season throwing more interceptions than touchdown passes, as Daniels did, won't prompt much praise. A year that includes a seemingly equal share of great plays and head-scratchers will throw some more fuel on the fire.
"But at the same time, I think how he responded to that (criticism) has been impressive to watch," Holtz said. "The way he turned and came back and finished the year with the bowl game and the way he rolled that into the spring and summer and the way he's playing right now in camp, I'm excited about the progress he's made."
That word — progress — is a regular out of the mouths of USF coaches and players alike when talking about Daniels, a redshirt junior now entering his third year as the Bulls' starter under center. And it's a word used in multiple areas: knowledge of the offense, development as a quarterback, maturity, leadership and confidence.
After a promising freshman season that included an upset win over Florida State in his hometown of Tallahassee in his first collegiate start, Daniels seemed to suffer a sophomore slump.
He completed 58.4 percent of his passes in 2010, but threw 13 interceptions to go with 11 TDs and averaged just 140.4 yards per game through the air.
Daniels threw for 1,685 yards, which ranked 92nd nationally.
Then, he went 20-of-27 for 189 yards with two touchdowns and ran for another score in USF's Meineke Car Care Bowl win against Clemson to earn MVP honors and restore some much-needed confidence.
By all accounts, Daniels is a much different — and much improved — player entering the 2011 season, which begins with Saturday's season opener at No. 16 Notre Dame.
"He is leaps and bounds better than he was a year ago," Holtz said.
Call it a simple approach, but Daniels points to one thing that has allowed him to reach this point.
"Just focusing," Daniels said. "Putting everything to the side and doing whatever I can to reach the common goal that we all are trying to achieve."
For the first time in his career, Daniels was focused solely on football this offseason. There was no rehabbing an injury, no trying to latch on with the basketball team, which were among notable obstacles in previous years.
It's given him the opportunity to take full advantage of being in the same system for the first time in his career, and it puts him in a position to make significant strides. Needless to say, it seems to be paying dividends.
"He has done a tremendous job of maturing, he's done a tremendous job of studying and understanding what's expected of everybody that's around him, but probably just as importantly he's done a great job of understanding just what's expected of himself and what his role in the offense is," quarterbacks coach Peter Vaas said.
"The quarterback position is a multi-dimensional one. It's not only physical, it's mental. And probably as much as anything, as much progress that B.J.'s made from a physical standpoint, he's probably made that much more from a mental standpoint that people that aren't around him on a daily basis may not be sensitive enough to realize."
Those around him on a daily basis certainly are noticing the differences.
Senior safety Jerrell Young and redshirt sophomore defensive end Ryne Giddins have noticed Daniels displaying better recognition of what the defense is throwing at him in practice. Offensive coordinator Todd Fitch has praised Daniels not only for his increased knowledge of the offense and its working parts, but for his efficiency while running it. That includes much better decision making, which was perhaps the biggest problem area last season.
And all see Daniels emerging as more of a vocal leader, something that wasn't there last year.
"He said to me a number of times last year, 'Coach, it's very hard for me to open my mouth when I'm the one that's not getting it done. It's very hard for me to try to be a vocal leader when I'm the one that's making a poor decision or making a poor throw or a poor read and not understanding everything,' " Holtz said. "I think he has come a long way as a player, as a person and as a leader on this football team."
The sentiment is shared, and welcomed, throughout the locker room.
"When your quarterback is leading and you can follow him, it's always a great thing," Young said.
USF has big aspirations this season, and Daniels is perhaps the biggest key to the Bulls' success. Holtz points out that even with all the progress Daniels has made since the end of last season, he still needs to carry it over to the field on game day.
The Bulls seem confident he can do so.
"He's gotten a lot better," said junior linebacker Sam Barrington, adding that he reminds Daniels of that daily. "He's more consistent, he's confident and he looks like he's prepared to go out and do what everybody wants him to do."
Saturday: Season opener, 3:30 p.m.; TV: NBC, Channel 8