DAVIE, Fla. – As five key members of the American Heritage football team introduced themselves to a reporter, Jason Brown tried to pull a fast one.
“Jason Brown,” he said, “quarterback and safety.”
Brown, who recently committed to Harvard University for 2017, is correct about the first part – he does play quarterback.
Safety, however, was just a Brown joke. Then again, who could blame him for wanting to be a part of a secondary that touts itself as the best in the country?
Mario Perez, the offensive coordinator at American Heritage (Plantation, Fla.) High, said the Patriots have special athletes in their defensive backfield.
“They are elite,” he said. “Elite football players are elite in all categories – their size, their speed, their strength, their alignment, their route recognition, their timing, their execution and their intangibles. They are not weak in any category.”
Here’s a closer look at the four key members of the Heritage secondary, all of whom were present on Saturday at the fourth annual Miami Dolphins High School Football Media Day at Nova Southeastern University:
Cornerback Patrick Surtain Jr. is a 6-2, 190-pound junior. His father, 40-year-old Patrick Sr., is the first-year head coach and a former NFL cornerback who made the Pro Bowl three times (2002-2004) while playing for the Miami Dolphins.
Surtain Jr. is the highest-ranked player at Heritage, rated the No. 1 junior cornerback in the nation by 247 Sports. Surtain, who had two pick-sixes last year and also returns punts, has yet to choose a college, but LSU is considered his favorite.
Cornerback Marco Wilson, a 6-0, 180-pound senior, is a Florida Gators recruit. He is rated a four-star recruit, one notch below Surtain, but both are on the Sun-Sentinel’s list of the top 11 players in Broward County, regardless of position.
Marco’s father, Chad Wilson, was a University of Miami cornerback in the 1990s, and he now serves as defensive coordinator at Heritage.
Cornerback Will Allen Jr. is a 5-9, 165-pound senior. He is the son of Will Allen Sr., who played 11 years in the NFL after being selected in the first round of the 2001 draft by the New York Giants. Allen Jr. lacks great size but is a terrific leaper who makes plays in the slot.
Safety Tyson Campbell is a 6-2, 180-pound junior who can also play cornerback. Because of his length, youth and tackling ability, he may have more potential than anyone in this group after Surtain.
But given Heritage’s overall talent in the secondary, how does Brown even complete a pass in practice?
“It just makes us better as an offense,” Brown said. “If we can go up against these guys, then there is no one else who can stop us.”
The Patriots, though, were not unstoppable last year. They did hold three opponents to under 10 points, and they did get one shutout in a 10-2 season.
But they gave up an average of 16.8 points per game, losing 27-20 to Hallandale in the Class 5A regional semifinals. Hallandale was led by quarterback Tyler Huntley, a Utah recruit who was named Florida’s Gatorade Player of the Year.
That loss ended Heritage’s bid for a third straight state title. Even worse, the Patriots led that game 20-7 in the second half before Huntley rallied his team, completing a touchdown pass on the vaunted Heritage secondary with just 27 seconds left.
“It was not only a football lesson but a life lesson,” said Surtain Sr., who was an assistant coach last year on the Heritage staff of former NFL defensive back Mike Rumph, who has since moved on to the University of Miami. “We learned that the best team doesn’t always win if you don’t come in ready.
“We felt we had the best team in the state if not the country. But to come out and play like we played, I think the guys have learned from it, and I don’t think they want to experience that feeling again.”
The Patriots, poised to make another run at a state title, picked up two key transfers who were first-team All-Broward last year – offensive lineman Roberts Hawkins, a 6-5, 280-pounder; and running back Jordan Johnson, a 5-10, 175-pounder who rushed for 1,300 yards last season. Both came over from Plantation.
Heritage’s line is the focus of the offense with Hawkins added to a core group that includes 6-4, 340-pound senior guard T.J. Slaton and 6-4, 285-pound senior tackle Kai-Leon Herbert. Slaton is ranked the No. 3 guard in the country by rivals.com, and Herbert has committed to Michigan.
Defensively – aside from the secondary – the Patriots boast a standout outside linebacker in 6-1, 225-pound senior James Houston, who is a Florida Gators recruit.
With all that skill, the Patriots have loaded up their non-district schedule.
Their first three games are against Miami’s Booker T. Washington, which has won four straight state titles; at Colquitt County, which went 15-0 last year and won a state title in Georgia, and home against Don Bosco Prep, which won New Jersey’s Group 4 Non-Public state title last year.
The toughest of those tests may be Colquitt County, which has won 30 straight games, including two consecutive Class 6A state titles.
Heritage, ranked third in Florida by FNF Magazine, won’t back down, however. And a lot of their confidence comes from their last line of defense – their secondary.
“We feel like we have the best defensive backfield in the nation,” Will Allen Jr. said. “But that’s on paper – we have to live up to that. We have to show out every week. We want to be great.”