Commentary

Mater Dei is 'Quarterback High'

Southern California high school has knack for producing Heisman-caliber QBs

Updated: January 19, 2012, 10:10 AM ET
By Michael Grimala | ESPNHS

Matt BarkleyZach Cordner/ESPNHSCurrent USC quarterback Matt Barkley, shown here during his senior year at Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.), hopes to join Matt Leinart and John Huarte in Mater Dei's Heisman Lane next season.

Several college football programs have earned nicknames because of their reputation for producing great players at one particular position.

USC has been coined "Tailback U" after producing running backs such as Marcus Allen and Reggie Bush, while Penn State is known as "Linebacker U" because of players such as Jack Ham and LaVar Arrington.

On the prep level, Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.) could rightfully be called "Quarterback High."

The SoCal private school has turned out great quarterbacks at an extraordinary rate, and it's been going on for a long time. Mater Dei has produced national champions, Heisman Trophy winners and first-round NFL draft picks.

John Huarte
Courtesy of Mater DeiJohn Huarte was the first QB from Mater Dei to win the Heisman, capturing the coveted award while at Notre Dame in 1964.

With a list of alumni that includes Heisman winners Matt Leinart (2004) and John Huarte (1964), NCAA record holder and Heisman finalist Colt Brennan and current USC star signal-caller Matt Barkley, there's no question that Mater Dei has created something special when it comes to developing QBs.

Bruce Rollinson, in his 22nd year as head coach at Mater Dei, believes his coaching staff's willingness to teach is partly responsible for the string of great players to come through the program.

"We believe that kids can learn anything," says Rollinson. "A lot of schools sell their players short and say they're too young or not smart enough to do certain things yet. But we take it up another level and challenge them to learn."

Rollinson made offense a priority from the moment he took over the program. A 1967 graduate of Mater Dei, he knew early on of the Monarchs' QB tradition -- Huarte graduated in 1961 and went on to win the Heisman Trophy at Notre Dame.

Rollinson believes in bringing his quarterbacks along slowly, protecting them with a limited playbook and a strong running game until they gain experience. And he's a big proponent of film study.

"The first thing we look for in our quarterbacks is dedication," says Rollinson. "The quarterback has to be willing to work hard. He needs to go to work in January, with meetings and video work and learning the playbook. The more comfortable he is with the offense, the more confident he'll be on the field."

As the player grows into his role, Rollinson and his offensive coaches begin expanding his responsibility. They'll add more passing plays, more play-action and more freedom to audible. By the time Barkley was a senior in 2008, he was so adept at reading defenses that the coaches let him call his own plays at the line of scrimmage.

That kind of experience was invaluable to Barkley, who may add another Heisman to Mater Dei's résumé next year.

Matt Leinart
Julie Jacobson/APMatt Leinart, who graduated from Mater Dei in 2001, won the Heisman Trophy three years later at USC.

"I was so prepared to go to the next level because of what we did at Mater Dei," says Barkley. "Everything the coaches did was a step above high school, because they trusted us so much and challenged us so much with the playbooks, the game plans and the plays."

Rollinson is a believer in tailoring the offense to fit the quarterback.

"We play to the kids' strengths," says Rollinson. "We want to put the ball up in the air, but we're not run-and-shoot, throwing all the time. We want our split to be about 55-60 passing, 45-40 running. But there are some years when you have a Barkley or a Leinart and we're going to put it up. If you've got a trigger guy, let it fly."

Mater Dei also benefits from a ridiculously deep talent pool in Southern California. With the school's reputation for producing stud QBs, it seems like every promising young passer wants to play for Mater Dei.

That can lead to situations like the early 2000s, when Brennan backed up Leinart for three years and started at quarterback for only one season as a senior.

For current Mater Dei quarterback Ryan McMahon, the history is important. And he's reminded of it every day -- the school has a Heisman Lane honoring Leinart and Huarte.

"I want to strive to be like those guys," says McMahon, who was a first-year starter as a junior in 2011. "Because of the great tradition of quarterback play, all the younger players want to hold on to that and be a part of it."

Barkley believes Mater Dei pride continues to fuel the program today.

"I remember my freshman year, watching all the film highlights from 1989 through 2005," says Barkley. "You see all these great players like Colt Brennan and Leinart and [former Stanford quarterback] Jason Forcier, who went on to do great things, and it's almost an honor to be a part of it. To say you played QB at Mater Dei is a great honor."