It seemed unfathomable that the Mater Dei High School (Santa Ana, Calif.) football team would be this good.
After all, the Monarchs graduated three of their top four wide receivers last offseason. A group of offensive linemen who had started since they were sophomores had moved on.
They lost quarterback JT Daniels, who had called his own plays as a sophomore, to USC a year earlier than expected.
How could the reigning California and USA TODAY Super 25 champions continue to dominate so thoroughly?
“A long time ago as a high school coach, I realized two things: If you want to sleep at night, you better have a good quarterback, and you better have a core of big men on both sides of the ball,” Mater Dei coach Bruce Rollinson said.
It’s all come together. With a 6-1 record, Mater Dei’s only loss was a week one forfeit due to playing an ineligible athlete. Quarterback Bryce Young has provided different strengths for the Monarchs than his transcendent predecessor.
The rivalry matchup between Mater Dei and St. John Bosco on Friday will pit the two top teams in the nation against each other.
Rollinson might not get a ton of sleep, but the quick improvement of his big men up front allows him a couple extra hours of shut-eye each night.
The coaching staff trained up the inexperienced offensive line in time for the season by taking a minimalistic approach: Less is more.
“One of the biggest problems you have is burnout,” Rollinson said. “I used to not believe it. I’d say, ‘Ah, how can a kid at 16 years old burn out?'”
From February through the summers in L.A, with three- to four-hour practices — “God only knows how I won the games in the ‘90s,” Rollinson said — they would.
But now, the line practices technique, skills and identifying fronts for 20 to 30 minute bursts.
With those short lessons and outside weekend sessions run by former San Francisco 49ers OL Jesse Sapolu and a group called Prime Time Polynesian, the line was able to get up to speed to protect a true dual-threat quarterback.
“We’re more convinced than ever that you have to be cognizant of the attention span of your athletes,” Rollinson said.
But while these lessons were starting, Rollinson wasn’t even sure what was happening at quarterback when Daniels considered enrolling at USC a year early.
In the second semester of last school year, Daniels had to complete 10 classes to satisfy the NCAA, USC admissions and Mater Dei graduation requirements. But Rollinson, who was focused on training younger players in the spring, said he didn’t think about it much.
“I don’t worry until I have to worry,” he said. “I didn’t have to worry because the process of Bryce transferring to Mater Dei was on its way.”
Young, the No. 1 dual-threat QB in the nation per 247 Sports, has completed 77 percent of his throws, averages 248.3 passing yards per game and has thrown for 21 touchdowns with just three interceptions. He’s also scored four touchdowns on the ground, including the game-winner to knock the previous Super 25 No. 1 school, IMG Academy (Fla.) off its pedestal.
Daniels possessed the ability to run and scramble, but not to the extent of Young. This allowed Mater Dei to add some subtle changes to the playbook.
“To the naked eye, we look like we’re running the same things,” Rollinson.
After seven weeks of convincing victories, the coaching staff is trusting Young more and more to call audibles and pre-snap signals.
“Bryce is really starting to understand the entire thing,” Rollinson said. “We threw a lot at him because he’s capable of handling a lot.”
Perhaps most important, though, has been the defense.
Rollinson is in his 27th season as the Monarchs’ head coach and 40th as a member of the faculty. He attended Mater Dei. Tradition is important to a man such as him.
“Traditionally, over all these years at Mater Dei, whether it’s the ‘60s, ‘70s, Mater Dei prides itself on great defense and they know they have a tradition that they must follow,” he said. “It’s preached.”
He credits defensive coordinator Eric Johnson with keeping the play calling simple and allowing the group to dictate schemes sometimes.
After all, the defense is the most experienced unit on the team. Despite some concerns on depth coming into the year, Rollinson was confident relying on the corps.
“I knew the back-end would be incredible because they had already gone off as sophomores,” Rollinson said.
But one of the pleasant surprises goes against his mantra of “big men” helping him sleep.
“Probably not the biggest linebackers in America, but they’re what we call the traditional Mater Dei linebackers,” he said. “They’re tough kids and they’ll bring the hat and they’ll fly around and mix it up.”
Again with the tradition. It helped the defense shut out four opponents over a five-game stretch, allowing points only to the IMG powerhouse.
The depth, transfers and players returning from injury have held up for the Monarchs thus far.
This weekend, against powerhouse St. John Bosco, everything else will have to hold up too.
“We pretty much go with our first (defense) all day and a couple of subs, and it sometimes causes me sleepless nights,” Rollinson said. “I say, ‘Coach Johnson, well what if this kid gets banged up?’ He goes, ‘Well, we’ll figure that out if it happens.’”
They figured it out this offseason.
After all, as the long-time leader of Mater Dei says: He doesn’t worry until he has to.