By Rob Moseley
From his seat in The Club at Autzen Stadium, T.J. Daniel sat and watched Oregon’s postseason football banquet following his freshman fall of 2012.
Winners of the program’s annual awards paraded across the front of the room, and Daniel took notice. A tight end who played primarily special teams as a true freshman, Daniel was anticipating a move to the defensive line in 2013. The likelihood he could join that parade of award winners the next year was slim.
Still, he thought to himself, “If I redshirt next year, it would be nice to at least get something.”
Fast forward 12 months and sure enough, there was Daniel, being recognized as the Ducks’ scout-team defensive player of the year following his redshirt season in 2013. It was essentially the only award he could possibly have won, and 12 months after setting the goal of doing so, Daniel had come through.
He hopes to come through again for the Ducks in 2014. Depth on the defensive line is a major question mark this offseason, and Daniel is a guy who can provide an answer, beginning with the start of spring practices Tuesday.
The likelihood a converted tight end could become an impact Pac-12 defensive lineman in less than two years seems slim. But as Daniel has already shown, when he sets his mind to something, look out.
“He’s determined to become a player coaches can count on,” starting defensive end DeForest Buckner said.
There are also the newcomers to watch, and the Ducks have plenty of those. Freshman receiver Jalen Brown and three JC transfers – guard Haniteli Lousi, defensive lineman Tui Talia and cornerback Dominique Harrison – all will be looking to make a positive first impression.
Then there are the young veterans looking to crack the rotation for the first time. It’s in this class that Daniel falls, with the Ducks needing to fill three of the six spots on the defensive line’s two-deep.
“It’s pretty big,” Daniel said. “It’s a big stepping stone, to figure out where I’m going to be in the fall.”
Along with Buckner, the Ducks return two-year reserves Alex Balducci and Arik Armstead. That trio figures to make a strong case for starting assignments come fall, when the Ducks move on without Wade Keliikipi, Taylor Hart and Ricky Havili-Heimuli.
But behind those three, there are questions. Can Sam Kamp capitalize on his strong finish to 2013? Is Talia capable of helping right away? And how well will Daniel’s scout-team success last fall translate with the travel team this spring and beyond?
“I think he’s making that next step right now,” offensive tackle Tyler Johnstone said over the winter, after battling Daniel in practices most of last fall. “The first step was getting himself noticed on the scout team, which he did. The second step is having a big offseason, and he’s doing that now in the weight room.
“He’s one of the main guys motivating others, and getting in there wanting to get big. He really wants to get big.”
Listed at 256 pounds his first two seasons at Oregon, Daniel bought in along with everyone else to new defensive coordinator Don Pellum’s desire to see the Ducks “push more weight.” He’s added around 15 pounds already, bulking up for the rigors of battle in the trenches come fall.
When UO coach Mark Helfrich mentioned Daniel by name in a team gathering last December, Daniel recalls, “my heart dropped – in a good way.”
This particular team gathering happened to come in Oregon’s locker room following the Alamo Bowl victory over Texas. It was an unlikely place to mention a guy who didn’t play a snap against the Longhorns.
“Really surprising,” the soft-spoken Daniel recalled. “It felt real good.”
Helfrich knew that victory wasn’t earned only that day in the Alamodome. It was earned earlier in the month inside the Moshofsky Center, and during practices at a San Antonio high school the week of the game.
It was in those sessions that Daniel made contributions worthy of mention in the postgame locker room.
“He was our Jackson Jeffcoat,” Helfrich said of the role Daniel played with the scout team, preparing the UO offense to face the Longhorns’ all-American defensive end Jeffcoat.
“And he was phenomenal. He got after us.”
Daniel drew similar raves the week Oregon was to face UCLA, and standout Bruins end Anthony Barr. That’s when he made one of the plays of the year in practice, aborting his pass rush to leap at the line of scrimmage and intercept a pass, before running upfield with the ball.
“He did a great job all year,” Helfrich said. “And that’s hard. Especially at that position, because those guys don’t get a lot of breaks (practicing against Oregon’s uptempo offense).”
In high school, Daniel was a two-year letterman for Bishop O’Dowd High in Oakland, Calif. His coach was five-time Pro Bowl linebacker Hardy Nickerson, now an assistant coach with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Under Nickerson’s tutelage, Daniel had 88 tackles and 12 sacks in two years with the varsity. He also learned not to be satisfied with those results.
“When you get patted on the back,” Nickerson told him, “work harder. Never be satisfied.”
Daniel was recruited by Oregon’s defensive line coach at that time, Jerry Azzinaro, along with tight ends coach Tom Osborne. When Osborne began visiting more frequently, Daniel got the picture his immediate future was on offense with the Ducks, and he played tight end as a true freshman in 2012.
Daniel had two tackles on special teams that season, but no receptions. With Oregon’s depth at tight end looking solid for 2013, Daniel was approached about a switch to defense. He jumped at the chance.
“I feel like I developed a lot (at tight end), but not enough to get on the field,” Daniel said. “I was real excited. I couldn’t wait. I played defense all my high school career, and I was looking forward to playing defense here.”
Daniel soon approached Buckner, his friend from the recruiting process and another former prep basketball standout, for help learning Oregon’s defensive schemes. Daniel immediately became the Ducks’ fastest defensive lineman, and has been working since to add bulk to his 6-foot-6 frame.
A quiet, studious young man with an interest in investment banking once he’s done playing football, Daniel doesn’t have the stereotypical persona of a crazed defensive lineman. His personality is closer to those of Hart and Keliikipi, quiet guys with sterling work ethics.
“When he switched, I was kind of worried,” the offensive lineman Johnstone said. “Offensive guys don’t usually have the aggression it usually takes to be on defense.
“I was pretty surprised. When he went over there it only took him maybe two or three weeks to be, in my eyes, our best scout guy. I struggled with him every day. It was really back and forth, and he made me a lot better.”
For all of Daniel’s development over the last year, however, there’s much more work to be done.
“All that talk about potential stuff doesn’t matter if you don’t put it on the field,” he said.
“He’s going to have a ton of chances to develop,” Helfrich said. “Put everything he’s laid down work-wise, and try to take that same confidence, that same edge, that same energy and make it show up on Saturdays.”
Through two seasons at Oregon, Daniel has shown a knack for getting his name called, whether it was at the 2013 team banquet or after the Alamo Bowl. Perhaps the next time will be over the public-address system at Autzen Stadium, after a big play for the Ducks come fall.