Aug. 19, 2003
ATLANTA – If you ask any player on any team, they can usually give you some sort of story about why they wear a certain jersey number, whether they chose it or it was chosen for them. For Georgia Tech’s sophomore running back P.J. Daniels, it’s not his jersey number that means the most to him, it’s a number that was chosen for him when he arrived on the Flats that holds the most significance.
You see, when freshmen football players arrive on campus, they are each issued a number that identifies their locker and all of their gear. For scholarship players, that number is their jersey number, but non-scholarship players, as Daniels was when he arrived in 2001, are issued a three-digit number. Daniels’ jersey is No. 45, but his practice shorts and other apparel were labeled No. 114.
Now with a scholarship in hand, Daniels battles for a starting spot in the Tech backfield for 2003, but that pair of shorts are one of the lone clues to how he began his career as a Yellow Jacket.
“A lot of the newer guys on the team don’t know that I was a walk-on when I got here,” said Daniels. “Probably the thing that gives it away is the number on my shorts. I always wear the shorts that I was given when I first got here, and I think that has really helped me stick to my roots. Once people see the number, it usually leads to a long story about how I got my scholarship. The new walk-ons don’t really come up to me and ask me for advice, but if they do, I would be more than happy to give them help.”
Perhaps more of those players would be well served to talk to Daniels about his arrival at the top of the Georgia Tech depth chart in 2003. A four-year letterwinner at Elsik High School in Houston, Texas, he arrived on campus with little fanfare, despite rushing for 1,600 yards as a senior. As a result, he was redshirted and worked just to catch the collective eye of the coaches every day in practice.
“I knew that I had to work from day one,” said Daniels. “Naturally the coaches are going to pay more attention to the scholarship players that they recruited. I just have had to work to catch the coaches’ eyes and impress them. Whenever I’ve gotten the opportunity, I’ve tried to run hard and limit my mistakes.”
The hard work in practice certainly paid off in 2002, as Daniels got the chance he had been waiting for, seeing action in all but one game. The season was highlighted by a 21-carry, 95-yard performance against Virginia, in which he scored his second touchdown of the year. That effort did not go unnoticed, as Daniels was named the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Rookie of the Week. While that game was impressive, it may be the game before it, against Maryland, in which he scored his first collegiate touchdown, which holds the strongest memory for Daniels.
“It was against Maryland,” recalls Daniels. “I just remember walking in the end zone and saying to myself ‘there’s that feeling again.’ I hadn’t scored a touchdown since high school and by then it had been a year and a half. I finally got the chance to get my hands on the ball and took advantage of it. Just being able to play at the college level is a blessing.”
Daniels is one of several former walk-on players who are now on scholarship and should make strong contributions on this year’s team. The list also includes starting placekicker Dan Burnett, holder and punting candidate Hal Higgins, second-team free safety Nathan Burton and backup offensive tackle Will Hardy. A key member of last year’s Rambling Wreck team, starting tight end Will Heller, came to Tech as a walk-on and is now battling for a roster spot with the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
While Daniels’ finished as Jackets’ fourth-leading rusher on the year with 72 carries for 255 yards, his current position as one of the top candidates to be Tech’s number one running back for 2003 hasn’t changed Daniels’ understanding of how far he has come in his career. For that reason, it gives him a keen awareness of how fast it can change if his work lapses for even a day.
“Coach Gailey hasn’t told me that I’m the number one running back,” said Daniels. “He just tells me to keep up the good work and continue to be a leader for the team. From there, I’m just doing what he tells me to do. I don’t really think that I’m the guy just because I’m working with the number one group in practice. One day you can be working with the number ones and the next day you’re working with the number twos and maybe the next day you’re not even at that position anymore. It’s just a blessing that I am working with the first group, and I appreciate that Coach Gailey has given me that opportunity. It’s fun working with the first group because they have to set an example or the rest of the team.”
Every team needs its superstars to be successful. But even more importantly, a team must have solid leadership to reach greatness. If the Georgia Tech football team can find a corps of leaders the caliber of P.J. Daniels, then perhaps success can be measured in many more ways than just wins and losses in 2003, but in having the desire to work to improve every day and appreciate every opportunity that comes their way.