Times high schools columnist Eric Sondheimer has selected The Times’ 2017 high school football all-star team. A look at individual picks for best players at a position, followed by the overall team:
Player of the year: Quarterback J.T. Daniels, Mater Dei
The biggest surprise about the 2017 high school football season was that J.T. Daniels of Santa Ana Mater Dei, labeled as a pure drop-back quarterback for his first two years, suddenly as a junior became like Cam Newton.
Who knew he had the speed to break off long runs against the likes of Bellflower St. John Bosco and Concord De La Salle?
“You work so hard for something and when you get to see it manifest into reality, it’s something that proves to me when I really work at something, I can get it.” Daniels said. “It’s empowering.”
The ability to run made an already talented Daniels the best player in Southern California. He led Mater Dei to a 15-0 record and its first win in a CIF state championship Open Division bowl game. He has been selected as The Los Angeles Times’ high school football player of the year.
Daniels also received the Gatorade national player of the year award and is a two-time Gatorade state player of the year.
Daniels finished with nine touchdown runs. He also completed 72% of his passes for 4,123 yards and 53 touchdowns with four interceptions. He had a private trainer work on his running skills after Mater Dei coach Bruce Rollinson gave him the green light to run when he saw fit.
“I discouraged, threatened and didn’t want him running as a freshman and sophomore,” Rollinson said. “Freshman year, I didn’t think his body was ready for a pounding. Sophomore, I didn’t want someone taking his head off. This year, he gained almost 18 pounds. He trains compulsively with a designed workout for quarterbacks and his individual needs.
“Now, physically, if he has to take a shot, he can. I always new he was fast. He was, ‘Coach, I’m getting a bad rap.’ I said, ‘Well, don’t worry about that because you’ll have the rest of high school to dispel that. Trust me. I know.’”
So now everyone knows Daniels can run when needed. He had 97 yards rushing against St. John Bosco in a Trinity League game. No one has ever doubted his throwing skills.
“It’s dramatically improved,” Rollinson said. “His ball placement is unbelievable. His deep ball accuracy literally fascinates me. There’s times in practice I turn and go, ‘Wow.”'
Daniels announced that he will reclassify to become a member of the class of 2018, skip his senior season at Mater Dei, and enroll at USC.
He realizes this year’s Mater Dei offense was pretty special, from the outstanding offensive line that gave him time to fire away to a standout group of receivers in Amon-ra St. Brown, C.J. Parks, Nikko Remigio and Bru McCoy.
“I will miss those guys,” Daniels said.
Daniels was given the authority to call plays and make changes. That’s how much confidence and trust Rollinson placed in Daniels, who has a 4.1 grade-point average.
It worked: Mater Dei never trailed in a game this season.
“J.T. is unbelievable,” Rollinson said.
Back of the year: Olaijah Griffin, Mission Viejo
When Olaijah Griffin started school at Mission Viejo High he was best known for being the son of rapper and hip-hop producer Warren G.
He’s ending his days there having earned a reputation as one of the best cornerbacks and two-way high school football players in California.
“All the attention went to my dad,” Griffin said. “Now people are recognizing what I can do, and it’s a great feeling.”
Griffin has been selected The Los Angeles Times’ back of the year in high school football.
In leading Mission Viejo to a 12-1 record, Griffin was a defensive stopper at cornerback, giving the Diablos a chance to contain top receivers. He had 49 tackles and two interceptions.
On offense, he averaged 26.5 yards a catch, making 33 receptions for 874 yards and 12 touchdowns.
“It’s tough being a two-way player in this day and age,” Mission Viejo coach Bob Johnson said. “He never complained and made all kinds of plays on offense and defense.”
Taking advantage of his speed and aggressiveness, Griffin was particularly impressive on defense.
“He plays everybody tough,” Johnson said. “He doesn’t play off and hope they do this or do that. You can put him on anybody. He’s always there and plays aggressively. He sees things. He’s always looking ways to get the football.”
Said Griffin: “My philosophy is, if I work hard and think positively about myself I know I can do what I want to do.”
Whether facing receivers from Long Beach Poly or Santa Ana Mater Dei, Griffin was the player Mission Viejo counted on to be a disruptor. He came up with big plays, big hits and big contributions. He has orally committed to UCLA, but is taking other official visits and plans to sign in February.
Lineman of the year: Kayvon Thibodeaux, Oaks Christian
You don’t need to be a college or NFL scout to notice something different about 6-foot-5, 235-pound junior defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux of Westlake Village Oaks Christian High.
He looks and plays like a man among boys.
“Kayvon is everything we expected him to be,” coach Jim Benkert said.
Thibodeaux lived up to every expectation after transferring from Dorsey High. He finished with 21 sacks in helping Oaks Christian win the Southern Section Division 2 championship.
Randy Taylor, a longtime college scout, might have put it best: “He’s a Sunday player playing on Friday.”
Thibodeaux’s size, strength, agility and athleticism separated him from the rest, and made him the choice as The Times’ lineman of the year.
He became accustomed to being doubled teamed by blockers, which created opportunities for others. His leadership skills were an unsung plus for a young team that ended up with no senior starters on defense by the end of the season.
“He was as good against the run as he was against the pass, and against the pass he was unstoppable,” Benkert said. “When he went inside, he stopped the run. When he went outside, he stopped the pass. He’s unbelievable.”
Moving from the City Section to the Southern Section was expected to be a difficult transition, but Thibodeaux pulled it off.
“From the first game to the last game, his maturity has been off the charts,” Benkert said. “Every game he’s gotten better, and he was a freak show when he got here.”
Benkert is already looking forward to what Thibodeaux might look like in his senior season.
“This coming year, he says he’s going to be in the most unbelievable shape,” Benkert said. “He’s good enough to walk on the field and play anywhere.”
Coach of the year: Anthony Vega, Huntington Park
Months ago, Anthony Vega made the decision that 2017 would be his final season as football coach at Huntington Park High. He wanted to spend more time watching his 15-year-old son wrestle for Downey.
Who knew that his fifth and final season would result in Huntington Park’s first City Section football championship since 1959?
“I’m ecstatic,” he said. “It’s a good way to go out.”
Vega is The Los Angeles Times’ high school football coach of the year.
It was his recognition to place his trust in his players and train them to deal with adversity that led to a City title. Everybody could have gone into panic mode during a semifinal game against Granada Hills. Huntington Park trailed, 28-0, at halftime.
“I believe in my guys,” Vega said. “I knew we were able to move the ball. It was just us. It was our own mistakes.”
The Spartans rallied for a 34-28 victory.
“The intensity of that game in the second half was none like I’ve ever seen before,” Vega said.
The Spartans (11-4) then defeated Reseda Cleveland, 18-14, in the City Division II final. They appeared in their first-ever bowl game and lost to Calexico Vincent Memorial, 40-18, in a 6-A regional.
Sometimes coaches can make things so complicated that mistakes happen. At one point, Vega was calling the same passing play over and over because the players had been running it since ninth grade and he didn’t want any mistakes. There were some complaints, but there was a reason he wouldn’t change.
“When we get tight and close, I go to something they know most,” he said. “They get sick of it and tired of it, but it works.”
The Los Angeles Times 2017 high school football all-star team
RB: Jordan Wilmore, Lawndale, 5-9, 188, Jr. Catch him if you can; many couldn’t. Wilmore rushed for 2,220 yards and 33 touchdowns. He also caught four touchdown passes.
RB: Jermar Jefferson, Narbonne, 6-0, 200, Sr. The City Section Open Division player of the year led Narbonne to a Division 1-A bowl victory. He rushed for 1,848 yards and 34 touchdowns.
QB: J.T. Daniels, Santa Ana Mater Dei, 6-2, 200, Jr. The USC commit showed that he could also run the ball, scoring nine touchdowns. He passed for 4,123 yards and 53 touchdowns.
WR: Marquis Spiker, Murrieta Valley, 6-3, 175, Sr. The Washington commit set a state record with 69 career touchdown catches and finished the season with 83 receptions for 1,490 yards and 27 touchdowns.
WR: Amon-ra St. Brown, Santa Ana Mater Dei, 6-0, 170, Sr. Fearless, fast and aggressive, St. Brown caught 64 passes for 1,370 yards and 20 touchdowns while earning respect as the top receiver in California.
WR: Michael Wilson, Chaminade, 6-2, 185, Sr. The Stanford commit averaged 20.7 yards a reception and was the MVP of the Mission League. He caught 12 touchdown passes among 56 receptions.
L: Chris Murray, Santa Ana Mater Dei, 6-3, 295, Sr. Part of the best blocking group in the Southland, he was a model of consistency whether protecting the quarterback or opening holes for the running backs.
L: Tommy Brown, Santa Ana Mater Dei, 6-7, 315, Sr. The Trinity League lineman of the year is headed to Alabama after using his size and strength to manhandle defensive ends.
L: Jarrett Patterson, Mission Viejo, 6-5, 275, Sr. The No. 1 blocker for a Division 1 semifinalist, he was consistent, productive and relentless.
L: Justin Dedich, Chaparral, 6-2, 290, Sr. The USC signee is considered one of the top centers in the nation. Helped his team to a 7-5 record.
L: Jonah Tauanu’u, Narbonne, 6-5, 300, Jr. He stamped himself as one of the state’s top junior line prospects, using his agility and strength to help Narbonne win a fourth straight City title.
K: Jonah Lipel, Chaminade, 6-0, 180, Sr. The Harvard-bound Lipel made all 13 of his field-goal attempts and had 60 touchbacks on kickoffs.
L: Kayvon Thibodeaux, Oaks Christian, 6-5, 235, Jr. The Lions defense was vastly improved thanks to the transfer of Thibodeaux from Dorsey. He recorded 21 sacks.
L: Cole Aubrey, St. John Bosco, 6-3, 230, Jr. Rushing from his end position, he had 15 sacks and 72 tackles while showing an impressive ability to never give up on a play.
L: Abdul-Malik McClain, JSerra, 6-4, 230, Sr. The USC signee was a dominant player, charging ahead and causing havoc. He finished with 18 sacks.
L: Jeremiah Martin, Cajon, 6-5, 250, Sr. He finished with 31 sacks in helping the Cowboys reach the CIF state championship Division 2-AA bowl game.
LB: Christian LaValle, Mission Viejo, 6-1, 225, Sr. One of the hardest hitters around, the Arizona State-bound LaValle helped the Diablos finish 12-1 by contributing a team-leading 128 tackles.
LB: Darien Butler, Narbonne, 6-1, 228, Sr. Four times he was All-City. Four times he won a City title. This was his best season, recording 148 tackles.
LB: Mase Funa, Santa Ana Mater Dei, 6-3, 240, Jr. Toughness, quickness and determination were the descriptive words for Funa, who had 6 1/2 sacks among 52 tackles.
B: Chris Venable, Corona Centennial, 6-1, 180, Sr. Relatively unknown before this season, he made five interceptions, contributed 50 tackles and was contributor to a Division 1 semifinalist.
B: Stephan Blaylock, St. John Bosco, 5-11, 170, Sr. The UCLA signee played free safety and could be counted on to roam the field and find opportunities to break up plays.
B: Olaijah Griffin, Mission Viejo, 6-0, 180, Sr. Used his speed, athleticism and toughness to be an impact player at cornerback and the top player from the South Coast League.
B: Jared Greenfield, Crenshaw, 5-11, 165, So. Made12 interceptions for the Division 4-AA bowl champs, and showed his versatility by playing quarterback to start the season.
P: Jake Haggard, JSerra, 6-3, 190, Sr. The punter of the year in the Trinity League averaged 41.3 yards. He also made eight field goals in 10 attempts and is headed to Pennsylvania.
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