Column: College coaches expected to flock to first high school spring practices in two years

St. John Bosco High coach Jason Negro hugs Drake Metcalf as the team celebrates its CIF state championship in 2019.
(Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times)

High school spring football practice has evolved over the last 10 years. Every year, it seemingly gets bigger and more elaborate as private and public schools welcome college recruiters with handshakes and barbecues trying to gain exposure for their athletes.

At Bellflower St. John Bosco, the likely No. 1 team in Southern California this fall, coach Jason Negro is just excited about a return to normalcy.

“We haven’t had spring football in over two years,” he said. “It’s really refreshing. It’s injected energy into our program.”


Workouts begin Monday and culminate with a spring showcase for college coaches May 11, followed by a scrimmage May 19 that will be open to the public.

“It’s an opportunity to install basic schemes offensively, defensively, special teams, but it’s basically a preview period for our student athletes,” he said. “The colleges are in an open recruiting window to come and look at our guys. It’s great for our kids. They’re going to see pretty much every school come through our doors and they’re going to have a platform to display their talent.”

When COVID-19 restrictions were in place, recruiters couldn’t visit high school campuses. They didn’t have the opportunity to see who got bigger and faster working in the weight room or running on the track and didn’t get the chance to talk face to face with high school coaches or counselors.

“It’s become an emphasis and the priority for us as a coaching staff to get them ready for this evaluation period,” Negro said.

Like the current state of the college game, it’s also a chance for players to size up where they might stand for the fall, and some are likely to transfer if they don’t think they will start. High school sports doesn’t have an official transfer portal like the college ranks, but quarterbacks don’t like to sit and wait, so coaches have to be sensitive in how to handle that position.

There are so many top quarterbacks in Southern California that recruiters will watch over them to make sure their commitments stay firm. Among those who’ve committed are St. John Bosco’s Pierce Clarkson (Louisville), Los Alamitos’ Malachi Nelson (USC), Long Beach Poly’s Nico Iamaleava (Tennessee), Corona Centennial’s Israel Carter (Arizona State) and Rancho Cucamonga’s CJ Tiller (Boise State). Santa Ana Mater Dei junior-to-be Elijah Brown has never lost in two years of varsity football, so expect him to be a focus of attention.

It’s also the final spring for St. John Bosco’s talented two-way standout Matayo Uiagalelei, younger brother of Clemson’s DJ Uiagalelei. A tight end and defensive end, Matayo is causing Braves coaches to think hard about how to best use his talents and, most importantly, make sure he can perform at his best from beginning to end of games.

“Matayo is a phenomenal athlete,” Negro said. “He’s really the only full-time two-way player we have. We have to be able to manage his reps just to make sure we’re not wearing him down. We have to do a better job managing our expectations, putting him in a spot where he can be explosive at all times during a particular game and during the season.”

The Braves have announced a national schedule this fall that will take them to Texas and Oregon. But nothing will truly matter until they figure out a way to defeat Trinity League rival Mater Dei, which they haven’t beaten since 2019.

“You’re only good as your last one, so we have some work to do,” Negro said.

St. John Bosco, Mater Dei, Corona Centennial, Los Alamitos and Mission Viejo look like an early top five, with Long Beach Poly, Santa Margarita and La Puente Bishop Amat poised to contend, depending on transfer eligibility.

There’s also the question of whether Mater Dei plans to address the issues of last November, when a former student filed a lawsuit alleging a culture of hazing in the program. Neither the school nor the head coach, Bruce Rollinson, is commenting. A law firm was hired by the school in December to provide a safety assessment of the entire sports program. More than four months later, no report has been released to the public.

When last seen, Rollinson was being carried on the shoulders of players after Mater Dei won the Open Division championship.

Here are six players to watch:

Ty Dieffenbach, Agoura, quarterback, class of 2023: Dieffenbach is a 6-foot-5 former receiver coming off a fantastic junior year. He won’t have the veteran receivers he had last season, but a veteran offensive line returns and the focus will be on developing new receivers to take advantage of the athletic Dieffenbach, who also plays baseball.

Nicholas Fernandez, San Pedro, tight end, class of 2023: A three-sport athlete, Fernandez has focused this spring on getting stronger in the weight room after starting for the basketball team. At 6-3, 250 pounds, he’s also a defensive lineman. He’ll be one of the best in the City Section.

Kyngstonn Viliamu-Asa, St. John Bosco, linebacker, class of 2024: He missed the 2021 season because of a knee injury but is healthy and ready to return with a vengeance this spring. His promising freshman season raised expectations and produced a number of scholarship offers.

 Birmingham wide receiver Peyton Waters catches a touchdown pass against San Pedro.
Birmingham wide receiver Peyton Waters catches a touchdown pass against San Pedro.
(Alex Gallardo/Alex Gallardo)

Peyton Waters, Lake Balboa Birmingham, cornerback, class of 2024: In his first year of football, he made an impact on offense and defense for the City Section Open Division champions. He has grown to nearly 6-2, is loving the weight room and there’s no telling what he might accomplish this fall with his new experience and confidence.

Preston Jernegan, La Cañada St. Francis, linebacker, class of 2024: The school that produced tight end Greg Dulcich has another three-sport athlete in the 6-3, 200-pounder Jernegan, who played JV basketball and is a shot-putter. Growing strength and athleticism make him an intriguing college prospect. He also plays tight end.

Cory Butler, Corona Centennial, receiver, class of 2025: Coach Matt Logan can’t wait to see what the speedy Butler can add to his always explosive offense. “He’s fast and explosive,” Logan said.