LAS VEGAS — Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.) has always had one of the most respected athletic programs in California, no matter the sport. The Monarchs are respected across the board, from football to water polo.
On a national level, the football program is lauded as one of the Golden State’s finest.
Last year was no different, as the Monarchs opened their campaign ranked No. 14 in the Super 25, and by Week 5 climbed to No. 3—behind Bishop Gorman (Las Vegas) and IMG Academy (Bradenton, Fla.)—and stayed there for 10 weeks. It supplanted IMG at No. 2 for two weeks before losing to St. John Bosco (Bellflower, Calif.), 42-28, in the Southern Section Div. I finals.
Considering Mater Dei defeated Bosco during the regular season, the loss certainly hurt more than the plummet to No. 9 in the final rankings.
With most of the team’s offense back—led by junior-to-be quarterback J.T. Daniels and senior-to-be wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown—and three-time defending Super 25 national champion Bishop Gorman on the schedule, the Monarchs have high expectations for the 2017 season.
“I can’t say it stings, it’s football,” Daniels said recently during the 7v7 adidas National Championship, about losing to St. John Bosco in the playoffs. “You’re going to win some, you’re going to lose some. Bosco is a great team, and they played a great game and we lost. That’s the way football works. No stinging, no bad memories. We just know what we gotta do next time.”
Daniels remained humble about looking ahead to next season, the much-anticipated matchup with Bishop Gorman that so many have clamored about, and his recruitment process. Instead, he says he is purely concentrating on offseason bonding with his receivers, and improving his game in time for his junior season.
“Especially with timing. That’s why I want to make sure I’m playing with Amon, Nikko (Remigio), C.J. (Parks). (7-man football is) excellent for timing and mental conditioning, but it’s only part of it,” said Daniels, who added he is hoping to improve his pocket presence. “The more confident and comfortable I can be in the pocket will add another layer.”
For Daniels, his layers are impressive, and already run deep.
After throwing for 3,042 yards and firing 33 touchdown passes as a freshman, his encore was a 4,849-yard season as a sophomore, along with 67 touchdowns. He also finished his second season under center for the Monarchs with a QB rating of 145.6.
And a big part of Daniels’ passing game—25 percent of it to be exact—was St. Brown, who had 60 receptions for 1,229 yards and 21 TDs as a junior.
And like Daniels, St. Brown said his focus is strictly on getting better and building chemistry in time for his senior season.
“After the season, I took a four-week break and after that it was right back to work,” St. Brown said. “Right now, it’s about off-season training. I’ve got 7 on 7 football, and off season for me is lifting with my dad and trying to put on weight. I think the 7 on 7 really helps, definitely with chemistry between receiver and quarterback.
“Once you get the two of us in the game, it’s automatic between us two. We know what we want, we see the coverage and we adjust right away.”
His father, John, was named Mr. Universe twice and boasts three Mr. World weightlifting titles. St. Brown said he has already gained 10 pounds behind his father’s training program and a product he recently developed, Cane Protein.
St. Brown has had one of the more impressive showings in recent 7-man national tournaments, with a pair of the surest hands in the country. Just as it is during the regular season, there haven’t been many defensive backs who can contain him. St. Brown said he has more than 30 offers on the table, but he didn’t reveal a top five, saying his “top schools are any ones that will give me a chance to play as a freshman.”
Daniels wouldn’t even go that far, simply saying: “I’m wide open right now. The situation will depend on coaching, tradition and program.”
Daniels isn’t taking the recruitment process all that serious right now, admitting he’s going to simply let the chips fall, while rides the wave.
“I think it’s all about what you play for. If you play for exposure and what not, it’s going to get to your head,” Daniels said. “But if you just love the game and love your team, then that’s what you play for. All the other stuff is cool, but it can’t affect you too much.”
His calm and cool ways are why he’s been handed the playbook and given the keys to the offense. Daniels, said to be one of the more cerebral quarterbacks in the nation, calls his own plays and has full control of his unit.
“There is no one on the football team that watches more game film than J.T. and (offensive) coach (Dave) Money,” St. Brown said. “When J.T. or Coach Money say something, you better listen because they’re probably right most of the time. They put so much work in the film room, it’s crazy. I let them call the plays cause I know they’re doing the right thing.”
There aren’t many underclassmen who can handle that type of responsibility, but Daniels has proven he can handle it, given his near 8,000 yards over his first two seasons.
“It comes from years of learning from Coach Money,” Daniels said. “There’s no better football mind than Coach Money. It’s not like I’m doing this all by myself. Money is installing the game plan, but he knows nobody has a better view of the field than the quarterback and I’m the one playing the game.
“So if he can work it in to me, where I can be comfortable enough to operate an offense, then he’s gonna leave that up to me.”