SportStars Magazine

Monarch Master

Mater Dei Junior Quarterback JT Daniels Is On A Career Pace To Obliterate Several State Passing Records •

Story by MARK TENNIS | Photos by SAM STRINGER (Photo Gallery below)

It’s rare to see a junior in high school talk like a seasoned veteran, but Mater Dei-Santa Ana quarterback J.T. Daniels isn’t your normal junior in high school.

Daniels became Mater Dei’s starter in his freshman season, put up jaw-dropping totals as a sophomore for a team that was ranked No. 1 in the state and nation for many weeks and is now trying to help prepare the Monarchs for a stronger finish than the one they had last year.

After leading Mater Dei to a 70-35 Trinity League-opening win over Santa Margarita-Rancho Santa Margarita on Oct. 6, Daniels had added six more touchdown passes to his season total to put it at 22 as well as pushed his total passing yards on the season to 1,593 yards. He also has 153 yards rushing and two touchdowns.

Mater Dei also improved its record to 6-0, which includes a 35-21 win over the same Bishop Gorman-Las Vegas team that later beat seven-time CIF state champion De La Salle-Concord 34-7. The Gaels also had a 55-game win streak snapped when they lost to Daniels and company, which is why many had the Monarchs No. 1 in the nation heading into October.

Daniels’ season totals actually are at a lower pace than they were last season when he finished with 4,849 yards passing and 67 TD passes. The touchdown total was an all-time record for the CIF Southern Section and both are in the top five on the Cal-Hi Sports all-time state list. Of course, JT and the Monarchs could care less about passing stats and record lists because their focus has been developing the chemistry and toughness they’ll need to go all the way and win the CIF Open Division state bowl title. Last year’s team didn’t do that after it lost to Trinity League rival St. John Bosco-Bellflower 42-28 in the CIF Southern Section Division I championship despite beating the Braves 26-21 during the regular season.

“It’s been unfinished business,” Daniels said while walking off the field following a Sept. 23 win over defending CIF Division I-A state bowl runner-up St. Mary’s-Stockton at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara. “I haven’t thought much about it to be honest since January. We haven’t been worried about last year. It’s just been about taking the mistakes we’ve made and how we learned from them.

In fact, for as storied a program as it is, Mater Dei is still seeking its first appearance in any CIF bowl game. If they get there, Daniels will be driving the bus, so to speak.

“In subtle ways, it’s his leadership that has been increased from last year,” said Mater Dei head coach Bruce Rollinson, who with longtime offensive coordinator Dave Money has worked with several high-profile quarterbacks, including Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart and Matt Barkley. “His knowledge already was superior and he’s taken that part of his game to the next level. We’ve talked about certain routes and certain plays and what he’s comfortable with. We already know about his throwing. It’s all about him becoming a field general.”

Perhaps because of the stats he put up as a sophomore, it’s easy to compare Daniels to recent Folsom High standout — and current Heisman candidate for the University of Washington — Jake Browning.

Browning didn’t start as a freshman, but his teams at Folsom played 15-game seasons twice and had a 16-0 season in 2014. With him throwing for 91 touchdowns and more than 5,700 yards as a senior (both state records), Browning ended his career with 16,775 yards and 229 TD passes. Both obliterated the state records in those categories and the 229 TDs also is a national record.

Folsom 2015 graduate, Jake Browning, is the state’s career leader in passing yards and the nation’s career leader in TD passes. (Phil Walton photo)

Despite being a freshman, Daniels still came up big for Mater Dei in the 2015 season with 3,042 yards and 33 TDs. Adding up all his totals after the six-game mark from 2017 and he’s already up to 9,484 career yards and 122 TDs.

If the Monarchs play 16 games this season and 16 more next season, a healthy Daniels would certainly seem to have more than a chance to surpass Browning’s career totals set in 2014, which at the time seemed so outlandish that no one could ever come close.

“I love Jake,” Daniels said. “I know how he plays and I’d like to think (that we’re similar).”

People who evaluated the two during their sophomore seasons also had a similar concern: That they needed to become more athletic in the pocket, escaping pressure more effectively and improving their speed.

“Personally, I have tried to make a big step in pocket presence, awareness and mobility,” Daniels said. “If people have watched me this year, they know that I’m not as much of a statue.”

Browning’s coaches also raved about his abilities to quickly scan the defense and get the ball to receivers in space equally as quickly. It’s the same with Daniels.

“He’s a special mental kid in that way,” Rollinson said. “It really complements with his God-given talent.”

On one play during Mater Dei’s victory over St. Mary’s-Stockton, Daniels rolled to his left from the 15-yard line. He had a lot of extra time to look over the defense, but out of the corner of his eye spotted sophomore Chris Steele on the far right sideline in the end zone. The ball was in the air at almost the same instant Steele got open and Daniels delivered a high pass that only Steele could catch. Most quarterbacks on that play would have simply focused in on those receivers running routes more directly in front of them.

Amon-Ra St. Brown, the state’s No. 1 senior recruit, is among Daniels’ many offensive weapons.

“I can definitely relate to that,” Daniels said when asked about those skills. “I’ve gotten to know Coach Money since I was a sixth grader, and he’s a genius. I’ve got a game plan given to me early in the week every week, and I’ve got to get it down so I’m not thinking about it but reacting to what’s going on.”

Rollinson had never had a freshman start at quarterback before, but in that 2015 season he was planning to alternate Daniels with junior Matt McDonald. In the second game, however, McDonald suffered an injury that gave Daniels an opportunity. He threw for six touchdowns in a win over La Mirada and was on his way. McDonald was the starting quarterback last season at Mission Viejo.

All of the recruiting attention on Daniels soon followed, and before this season he ended the speculation by committing to USC, where so many other Orange County quarterbacks seem to land, including Leinart, Barkley, former Heisman Trophy winner Carson Palmer (Santa Margarita) and current Trojans standout Sam Darnold (San Clemente).

This Mater Dei team, however, has so much other surrounding talent around Daniels that he’s not the only one to get media attention.

“I don’t even think I get the most,” said Daniels, mentioning senior teammate Amon-Ra St. Brown, a receiver who along with his brothers was recently featured in Sports Illustrated and is considered the consensus top senior recruit in the state. “But we’re all fine with that and try not to pay attention to it.”

Browning’s last game of his junior season was a loss to De La Salle on the turf at Sacramento State. Daniels certainly hopes the final game of his junior season also happens at the same place, but with a different result.

 

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