Sensational Mater Dei junior QB JT Daniels isn’t quite on the same statistical pace he was on as a sophomore, but the Monarchs are more balanced offensively, they seem to be near an all-time best level overall in all facets of their game and they have a seasoned, veteran leader who clearly knows where the focus needs to be for the rest of the season.
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It’s rare to see a junior in high school talk like a seasoned veteran, but Mater Dei of Santa Ana quarterback JT 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 the Monarchs played on Sept. 23 at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara and completed the non-league portion of their season with a 52-14 romp past defending CIF Northern California Division 1-AA champ St. Mary’s of Stockton, Daniels added five more touchdown passes to his season total to put it at 16 and also had passed for 1,267 yards with another 130 yards rushing and two touchdowns.
Since then, the Monarchs have gotten past their first of possibly two tests against Trinity League rival St. John Bosco of Bellflower with a 31-21 triumph and have had little trouble negotiating through the rest of the teams in what many think is the toughest league in the state and nation. At least it probably is for this year.
Mater Dei’s 9-0 record entering the final regular season contest vs. Servite of Anaheim includes a 35-21 win over the same Bishop Gorman of Las Vegas team that later beat seven-time CIF state champion De La Salle of 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.
In the ninth game, a 51-21 triumph over Lutheran of Orange, Daniels completed 24 of 33 passes for 336 yards and five touchdowns. He also rushed for 45 yards on five carries. Counting that game, for this season Daniels was sitting at 3,042 yards passing with 33 TDs and just four interceptions.
Daniels’ season totals actually are at a lower pace than they were last season when he finished with 4,849 yards passing with 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 title. Last year’s team didn’t do that after it lost to St. John Bosco 42-28 in the CIF Southern Section Division I championship after earlier beating the Braves 26-21 in the regular season.
“It’s been unfinished business,” Daniels said while walking off the field at the home of the San Francisco 49ers. “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 subtle ways, it’s his leadership that has been increased from last year,” said Mater Dei head coach Bruce Rollinson, who along with longtime offensive coordinator Dave Money has worked with several high-profile quarterbacks, including Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart along with Matt Barkley (USC). “His knowledge already was superior and has 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 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.
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 nine-game mark from 2017 and he’s already up to 10,406 career yards and 131 TDs.
If the Monarchs play 16 games this season and 16 more next season and Daniels is injury free, he 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 so (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 (this season) 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, 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.
“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 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, former Heisman Trophy winner Carson Palmer and current Trojan standout Sam Darnold.
This Mater Dei team, however, has so much other surrounding talent around Daniels that he’s not been 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.