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Will Utah football have a successor to the ‘Hallandale Trio’? 4-star QB prospect Jayden Daniels headlines California teammates eyeing Utes

SHARE Will Utah football have a successor to the ‘Hallandale Trio’? 4-star QB prospect Jayden Daniels headlines California teammates eyeing Utes
Three players from Cajon High (California) are being recruited by Utah, including, from left, quarterback Jayden Daniels, wide receiver Darren Jones and running back Daniel Fortune. Jones verbally committed to the Utes in August, while Daniels, a four-sta

Three players from Cajon High (California) are being recruited by Utah, including, from left, quarterback Jayden Daniels, wide receiver Darren Jones and running back Daniel Fortune. Jones verbally committed to the Utes in August, while Daniels, a four-star prospect, and Fortune have scholarship offers from the school.

Brandon Judd, Deseret News

RIALTO, Calif. — In February 2016, the University of Utah football program signed three players from Hallandale High School in Florida to the same recruiting class.

The group, composed of Tyler Huntley, Zack Moss and Demari Simpkins, became known by many Ute fans as the "Hallandale Trio," and they've each become trusted members of an offense that is realizing its explosiveness under second-year coordinator Troy Taylor as No. 15 Utah (6-2, 4-2 Pac-12) has seized control of the Pac-12 South with one month of the regular season left to play.

Could the Utes sign another such trio in their 2019 recruiting class?

Quarterback Jayden Daniels and wide receiver Darren Jones — two star skill players for Cajon High in San Bernardino, California — have known each other since they were 7 years old, playing football together through their formative years. Cajon’s starting running back Daniel Fortune is Jones’ cousin and another close friend.

It’s not easy replicating that kind of on-field chemistry or gridiron intuitiveness.

“We’ve got a really good connection,” Jones said matter-of-factly.

That’s evident in the kind of attention they have received from college suitors.

The chance Utah could land another trio of high school teammates appears greater than Lloyd Christmas’ initial odds with Mary Swanson in “Dumb and Dumber.”

There’s still some uncertainty, though.

Jones, a consensus four-star wide receiver prospect, already verbally committed to Utah in August.

Daniels, a consensus four-star quarterback and the most high-profile athlete of the three, has the Utes in his final three choices — along with UCLA and Cal — of where he’ll play collegiately.

Fortune, a three-star running back, holds offers from Utah and Iowa State and is likely destined for Salt Lake City, according to 247Sports.

“We all hang out together. We’re brothers. It would be fun playing with them at the next level if it happens,” Daniels said.

Just days after news surfaced that four-star QB talent Jack Tuttle would transfer out of the Utah program midway through his freshman year before ever taking a snap, Daniels and Fortune made their official visit to Utah for the Utes’ game against USC on Oct. 20.

The college atmosphere in Utah stood out to Daniels, who is the top uncommitted quarterback in the 2019 recruiting class. He's also the second-rated dual-threat QB prospect nationally by 247Sports and third according to Rivals and ESPN.

“The atmosphere is different. Growing up in Southern California, you don’t really see a college town because there’s so many teams out here and it’s so spread out,” Daniels said. “Going to Utah where they don’t have a pro team — they have a pro basketball team — but everything is based around University of Utah football, going there and seeing the vibe and seeing all the people there just excited for the Utes to play, seeing everybody comes to support in a sold-out stadium, it’s a very good vibe out there.”

It was an important recruiting weekend for the Utes that also included another recent Utah commit, cornerback Aaron Lowe, joining the crowd at Rice-Eccles Stadium. Having the Utes defeat the history rich Trojans 41-28 was just a cherry on the top.

“Obviously very positive. It’s great to have it on a national stage — or a stage of some platform that had a lot of people watching — when you play well. The kids see that,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said following that win. “Even on TV, it projects well — the crowd, the atmosphere. But to be there is just that much better. We had a fairly substantial recruiting weekend this past weekend, so it’s very positive. I think it had a big impact. We’ll see what happens.”

Jones said he’ll take his official visit when the Utes host Oregon on Nov. 10.

“They really kept in contact with me, like I’m one of their family,” Jones said, of why he made the decision to commit to Utah just over two months ago.

Daniels’ commitment especially would provide a boost for a Utah program that is on the upswing in the Power 5 conference world. He pointed to the coaching staff as a reason the Utes are being seen as more of a contender in recruiting.

“Coach Whittingham, he’s been there for a long time, so I know there would be longevity with him,” Daniels said. “Also, Coach Taylor, me and him have built a relationship over the time he has been recruiting me, ever since he offered me. Just showing that they care about me and they want me there, seeing the atmosphere there and the players there is very exciting.”

What would Utah be getting if all three end up in the Beehive State?

The 6-foot-3, 174-pound Daniels is the unquestioned captain of a 9-1 Cajon High squad that starts the playoffs this week, looking to improve upon a state runner-up finish in 2017 at the Division 2-AA level.

In addition to his final three, Daniels holds scholarship offers from places like Alabama, USC, Penn State, Texas A&M and Georgia, among others. He’s rated just outside the top 100 national prospects in the country this season (No. 102 by 247Sports, No. 106 by Rivals and No. 109 by ESPN).

“He’s such a leader, it’s like having another coach on the field. He’s such a great leader, incredibly smart guy, makes good decisions. He’s a four-year starter, and he looks the part,” Cajon High coach Nick Rogers said of Daniels.

In the past two seasons, Daniels has thrown for 8,306 yards with a 70.7 completion percentage, 106 touchdowns and just eight interceptions, according to MaxPreps. He’s also been the Cowboys’ leading rusher, with 2,277 rushing yards and 26 touchdowns on the ground over the past two years. With the postseason, he could play another six games this year and continue to pad those stats.

Jones has caught 49 passes for 875 yards and 12 touchdowns this season, to go along with a remarkable 102 receptions for 2,094 yards and 28 touchdowns the year before, according to MaxPreps.

“Playing with Jonesy, we already know the chemistry is there. It’s just a matter of playing football and playing for each other,” Daniels said.

Jones is also a tough matchup, listed at 6-foot-8 or 6-9, depending on the source, and between 180-185 pounds.

“He’s a matchup nightmare for people with his size. Everyone thinks when you hear a guy is 6-foot-9, they say he’s not able to do certain things. He’s 6-foot-9, but runs like a guy who is 5-11. He’s got moves, he’s got speed, he plays the ball well, he high-points the ball really good,” Rogers said.

The coach also sees a chemistry built through familiarity and friendship between the quarterback and receiver. That was on display in Cajon’s most recent game last Thursday, when Daniels completed 24 of 33 passes for 415 yards and five touchdowns, while also rushing for 39 yards and a score. Jones caught a team-high eight passes for 146 yards and a pair of touchdowns before the two sat out the fourth quarter of a 46-21 win over Carter High.

“They know where the other one is going to be. They share the same idea in a lot of cases. Jayden finds those openings, and Darren makes sure he gets in them. Having that kind of combination is obviously something we lean on heavily,” Rogers said.

The 5-foot-11, 190-pound Fortune, who missed the game against Carter with a hamstring injury but is hopeful to return for the postseason, has also played a key role in the Cajon High offensive attack. This year, he's rushed for 441 yards and six touchdowns on 62 carries, according to MaxPreps, while adding 18 receptions for 369 yards and seven touchdowns.

“He brings another type of playing (style) to the field. He can beat you in the pass game, we can use him in the run game. He’s fast. He has very good hands. It’s just about getting the ball in space. He’s a playmaker, and he can make plays,” Daniels said.

Added Rogers: “He’s a game-breaker. He’s got that top-end speed which we like. He’s got a great burst, and he’s a tough hard runner. He’s pound for pound one of the strongest kids that we’ve got.”

On the field, the trio know their next opponent: it’s Paloma Valley on Friday in the first round of the playoffs. As for the recruiting world, things are becoming clearer, even if not set in stone yet.

It would be fun because we’ve been playing with each other for so long. Fortune is my cousin, and Jayden’s been my guy since he was little. It would be fun, and it would be how it is right now. – Utah commit Darren Jones on the possibility of playing for the Utes with high school teammates Jayden Daniels and Daniel Fortune

Daniels, who’s been discussing college possibilities with his parents, indicated there is no concrete timeline for when he will make his college choice, though he said it will be in the next couple weeks.

“We have a couple ideas when, but we’re not sure what the exact date would be,” he said about revealing where he’ll play next.

For what it's worth, both 247Sports and Rivals are currently predicting Utah will land his services.

At Utah, the careers of Huntley, Moss and Simpkins — all juniors for the Utes — are coming together nicely. Huntley is in his second year as starting quarterback and has thrown for 1,700 yards and 11 touchdowns this season, to go along with 262 rushing yards and four more scores. Moss is sixth nationally with 964 rushing yards on the year and has 10 rushing touchdowns. He also needs just 701 rushing yards to surpass Eddie Johnson (with 3,219 yards) for the program's career rushing yards record. Simpkins, meanwhile, has started 19 games in his college career, including all eight this season, and has 15 receptions for 214 yards and two touchdowns in 2018.

Whittingham had high praise for his offense this week during his Monday press conference, including members of the "Hallandale Trio."

“The receivers, they’ve stepped things up and drops have pretty much been eliminated, knock on wood. They’ve done a great job catching and holding onto the ball. Zack Moss is Zack Moss. You just feed him the ball and good things will happen. And then Tyler’s playing with so much confidence and has such a grasp and command of the offense right now,” the coach said.

Down the line, will the "Hallandale Trio" give way to the "Cajon Trio"?

Time will provide that answer.

“It would be fun because we’ve been playing with each other for so long," Jones said. "Fortune is my cousin, and Jayden’s been my guy since he was little. It would be fun, and it would be how it is right now.”