SMU football: Former Southlake Carroll star TJ McDaniel already proving his value in Dallas

By Kelly Guess

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UNIVERSITY PARK -- It only took three carries for TJ McDaniel to make the biggest division of college football look like any old Friday night in Southlake again. 

His first career carry at SMU went for six yards. The second went for four. The third went for 48 down the middle of the field, right through the teeth of a stout Texas State defense. Just two plays later, McDaniel ran it 10 yards in for his first career collegiate touchdown, assuredly the first of many. 

“I thought this game was different, the speed was different, all that stuff,” McDaniel said after the game. “When I got put in today, it was like I was playing high school football. It all fits the same way – they make a block, you find a hole and you cut through. It felt like I was playing in the Friday Night Lights.” 

Maybe to you, TJ.

SMU offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee didn’t wait long to put McDaniel back in. Shane Buechele handed the ball to McDaniel on a delayed draw. He squeezed between the tackle and guard, swerved around a cornerback and took off. This time, the defenders didn’t catch him. It was a 39-yard touchdown. 

Just days earlier, McDaniel was running scout team against his own defense, wondering if he’d even get into a game as a freshman. The coaching staff hinted that he might get a few reps against Texas State, but he didn’t oversell it. Even though he ran some first team running back reps, he only really expected to play special teams. Freshmen typically have to wait their turn. 

Even those closest to him didn’t realize this would happen so soon. His brothers, Gavin and Cam, were at a wedding shower for Gavin. Cam was still driving to it when TJ scored his first touchdown. By the time he got to the venue, Gavin had turned the game on. 

TJ’s high school coach, Riley Dodge, was out on a date with his wife at a local Mexican restaurant as the game started. By the end of it, date night was them at a restaurant table watching T.J. ball out on Dodge’s phone. 

“Where was this the last two weeks?” an SMU teammate asked McDaniel with a laugh on the sideline after he scored his second touchdown. 

“Guess I’ve been using it all on y’all,” McDaniel shot back. 

On McDaniel’s next drive at the end of the third, Texas State defensive coordinator Zac Spavital learned his lesson. He put nine in the box, only leaving his corners out with no safety help over the top. Lashlee didn’t care. McDaniel ran a dive up the middle, broke two tackles and broke free for an uncontested 42-yard touchdown. 

The final count: 159 yards and three touchdowns on just eight carries. Days later, he was named the Earl Campbell Tyler Rose Co-Player of the Week. 

“We’re not surprised, honestly,” SMU coach Sonny Dykes said. “He’s a good football player. He does things the right way.” 

Former Southlake Carroll RB TJ McDaniel by John Hamilton

Football Legacy

It shouldn’t be much of a surprise that McDaniel is a great football player. Texas football runs through his veins. 

His father, grandfather and great grandfather were all high school football coaches. Cam played on Notre Dame’s national runner-up team in 2012 and was a team captain as a senior. Gavin walked on at Washington and later played at Azusa Pacific. Both starred at Coppell, but their parents moved to Southlake for business after TJ's freshman year.

By the time McDaniel’s junior season at Southlake Carroll came around, he was ready to match everything his brothers did. TJ rushed for 1,862 yards and 23 touchdowns as a junior, drawing the attention of college from around the nation.

“He was one of the better high school backs I’ve ever seen,” Dykes said. “He does everything the right way. He reads blocks, he finishes, all the stuff you want guys to do. He gets his shoulders low in the hole, he’s got great lift in his legs and knee drives, he reads blocks remarkably well. He was very well coached. He would just sit and wait for things to happen. Not everyone has the ability to do that.” 

He was even better as a senior, exploding for 2,122 yards and 34 touchdowns on 7.8 carries per game against the best high school football players in America. The Dragons won their first 13 games and averaged 42 points before running into the Duncanville freight train. 

“Our game plan was centered around him,” said Southlake Carroll coach Riley Dodge, who coached McDaniel during his senior season. “Sometimes it was about featuring him and sometimes it was about featuring him as bait to get other people open. I think we did a pretty good job, but he made all of us look good for sure.” 

His success wasn’t overlooked. McDaniel won the Landry Award as the best overall football player in North Texas, regardless of position. He also earned all-state honors, and offers from Clemson and Oregon.

But despite the high-profile offers, SMU kept coming to the forefront. The more he talked to Cam, who picked Notre Dame over a laundry list of Power Five offers, the clearer it got.

“He was really excited about staying local and selling into a program that historically is known and has a legacy in NCAA football that is pretty spectacular,” Cam McDaniel said. “Knowing that he had the potential opportunity – from what he was seeing and people around him – of reviving that legacy, I just said, man, to be part of something like that would be an amazing opportunity.”

All the pieces seemed to line up. McDaniel wanted to have a business degree with the chance to work in Dallas after graduation. He wanted to have a strength group that could help push him to his potential, and believes that Kaz Kazadi’s staff is that.

Most importantly, McDaniel wanted to be valued by his new coaching staff, and didn’t want to worry that they’d try and demoralize him when he arrived. After seeing Cam experience both sides of going to a college football blue blood at Notre Dame, finding the “biggest” offer and jumping in was less of a priority. 

“When recruits ask me for advice, that’s what I try to tell them,” Cam McDaniel said. “If they have options, I try to tell them to go somewhere where they value you and where they’re upfront and honest with you about what you want to do.” 

SMU’s staff convinced McDaniel that they were a place that valued him. Nothing supported that more than what the creative staff did this fall. 

Billboard by SMU Athletics

Hometown Star

Drive down Highway 114 in Southlake and a 14-foot tall TJ McDaniel stares back at you from a billboard. SMU commissioned eight such billboards, featuring seven players and wide receivers coach Ra’Shaad Samples. McDaniel is the lone freshman. 

The players the program picked featured some of the best and most proven players on the roster. James Proche will be in the NFL next year. Richard Moore could join him. Reggie Roberson and Shane Buechele could join him soon. 

But among all the proven commodities, McDaniel stood apart as the lone college football newcomer. That’s no coincidence. SMU believes that McDaniel can be part of bringing the program back to relevance, both on and off the field. 

“Southlake Carroll has a great tradition and has won a ton of ball games,” Dykes said. “To be able to sign a player of TJ’s stature from a program like that was important to our program.”

The Mustangs had not signed a player from the iconic D/FW program since Evan Brown in 2014. McDaniel was joined by teammate Henry Mossberg, a greyshirt offensive guard, in the class of 2019, along with a pair of twin walk-ons. They’ve already offered three Dragons in the class of 2020. 

Even more than that, eight of the Mustangs’ 19 signees in 2019 are from the Metroplex. Thirteen were from Texas. Dykes wants that number to go up. And he wants Southlake Carroll fans to flock to watch their hometown star play at Ford Stadium. 

“What [SMU has] done in their recruiting process in the Dallas-Fort Worth area has been pretty impressive,” Dodge said. “They’re thinking outside the box. When you can find cause to try and keep Metroplex kids inside the 214 and 972, that’s very important. If they can find ways to keep those kids local, they can be a national success.” 

Of course, your high school’s highest-profile player in years running for 159 yards and three touchdowns in his first collegiate performance is the best billboard SMU could get. 

“I think we all knew – or at least we all thought – he was going to be a good college football player,” Dykes said. “Tonight was his first action. He had a good game and we’ll see where we go from here.” 

So, where will SMU go from here? The plan was always for McDaniel to redshirt his first season. The Mustangs have two outstanding senior running backs, Xavier Jones and Ke’Mon Freeman. Dykes figured the Mustangs could ride those two backs in 2019, and let the next generation – featuring McDaniel, redshirt freshman TaMerik Williams and true freshman Ulysses Bentley IV – take over in 2020. That now gets more complicated. 

McDaniel reiterated after the game that he’s still fine redshirting if that’s what the coaching staff wants. Cam didn’t have the luxury of a four-game redshirt rule. He advised TJ to take advantage of the time. If TJ is ready to star, though, SMU is ready to win.

For now, the plan is for McDaniel to play against TCU, see how he plays and reevaluate his redshirt. The Horned Frogs feature one of the best defenses in the sport. If McDaniel plays will against the bad boys from Fort Worth, that means something. If not, that just means McDaniel can terrorize AAC defenses all the way until 2023. 

Oh, and don’t worry. TJ’s family knows they better be there early on Saturday at Amon G. Carter Stadium in Fort Worth. If not, they just might miss TJ breaking away for six.


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