There’s a street sign unlike any other in America on the campus of Santa Ana Mater Dei.
It says, “HEISMAN LANE, in honor of John Huarte ’61 & Matt Leinart ’01.”
Every quarterback who plays for Mater Dei understands its meaning and the tradition created by two former Heisman Trophy winners.
This season, there are fans who think they’re watching another teenage quarterback with similar qualities and traits.
Sophomore J.T. Daniels has helped lead No. 1-ranked Mater Dei to a 7-0 record going into a nationally televised game against No. 2 Bellflower St. John Bosco on Friday night at Cerritos College. He has been putting up statistics never seen in Coach Bruce Rollinson’s 28 years as head coach — not from Leinart, not from Matt Barkley, not from anyone.
Daniels has completed an astounding 81% of his passes for 2,640 yards and 40 touchdowns with just two interceptions. And he’s done it calling his own plays.
La Mirada Coach Mike Moschetti tried anything and everything to disrupt Daniels in a 48-0 loss in September.
“I’ve never seen a high school quarterback with his poise,” Moschetti said. “We did a million different things on defense. We dropped nine and blitzed everybody, and he knew exactly what to do. He reminds me of Tom Brady and Joe Montana in one. He knows exactly where to go with the ball. When he gets hit, he doesn’t get rattled.”
Rollinson and offensive coordinator Dave Money agreed to do something this season they’ve rarely done — let their quarterback call the plays from the line of scrimmage.
It started in the spring in seven on seven tournaments. It continued all summer. Money would signal in a formation and then Daniels checked out the defense and made the decision what to run. Nothing has changed this fall.
“It’s a lot of preparation, but I’m always confident with Coach Money and his game plan,” said Daniels, who has a 4.3 grade-point average. “All I have to do is see certain things that he’s taught me to look at on film. I know our concepts and when to call them. We try to simplify things and let me see what I see and go from there.”
It’s gotten to the point Rollinson calls Daniels the “assistant offensive coordinator.” Daniels might deserve a salary and a coach’s shirt by season’s end, considering all the time he puts in watching film.
“The kid has to have a passion to learn the game,” Rollinson said. “You can throw it but can you see the field? This kid is constantly looking for an edge to make himself better. That’s the separation to me. Are they getting the ball out in time? Can they change protection vs. a blitz? That’s what the great ones do.”
Daniels, who’s 6-1 and 195 pounds, has benefited from perhaps the best collection of receivers on any team. It starts with the St. Brown brothers, Osiris and Amon-ra, and includes C.J. Parks, Bru McCoy and Nikko Remigio.
“Some of his balls have been incredible,” Rollinson said. “Some have been catches, ‘How did he do that?’”
Daniels was a youth football standout. Since his arrival last season as a freshman, those wanting to play quarterback for the Monarchs have scattered. Last season’s first-game starter, Matt McDonald, transferred to Mission Viejo and has passed for 24 touchdowns for the 8-0 Diablos.
Daniels took over as a freshman last season and passed for 3,042 yards and 33 touchdowns.
When Daniels walks down Heisman Lane and looks up at the sign, he doesn’t feel any increased pressure knowing who came before him.
“I never really feel pressure to perform for all the greats,” he said. “I think Mater Dei’s tradition is of hard work and effort and that’s all we put pressure on ourselves to do. I just try my best for them.”