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15 Player of the Year candidates to watch in California high school football

California high school football is loaded with talent this season.

Many California high school football teams kick off their seasons this week, which means it's time to release our preseason state Player of the Year award watch list. 

Last season, Servite senior Tetairoa McMillan took home SBLive's California Football Player of the Year honor. Here are 15 names to consider for the 2022 award. 

VOTE! WHO WILL BE THE 2022 CALIFORNIA HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL PLAYER OF THE YEAR?

Daylen Austin - Long Beach Poly senior cornerback

Austin made 44 tackles, picked off two passes, forced a fumble, recovered two fumbles, returned two punts for TDs and brought back one kick for a score last season. The LSU commit is dynamic. If he can help bring Poly back to the Division 1 playoffs in the Southern Section, he'll surely garner Player of the Year buzz. 

"Daylen is probably one of the most talented defensive backs in the nation," Long Beach Poly head coach Stephen Barbee said. "He's also an incredible kick returner. He's just one of those guys that has the ability to go the distance every single time he touches the ball." 

Elijah Brown - Mater Dei junior quarterback

2022 Preseason Football Power 25 Photo Shoot with Mater Dei. Photo-Heston Quan72 (1)

Brown is undefeated as a starter at Mater Dei. He made a claim to win our Player of the Year honor last year, but he came in behind Servite's Tetairoa McMillan following the wide receiver/defensive back's generational season. As a sophomore, Brown completed 166 of 224 passes (74%) for 2,581 yards and 30 touchdowns. He's a Player of the Year favorite to begin the year. 

"Elijah's much stronger and more confident," Mater Dei head coach Bruce Rollinson said. "He’s 17-0 and he’s ripping the ball. So we're excited, but the most important thing is he now is getting to where he can make the adjustments, changing protections, changing one side or the other and the routes. It’s good stuff."

Pierce Clarkson - St. John Bosco senior quarterback

2022 Preseason Power 25 Photo Shoot with St. John Bosco. Photo-Heston Quan98 (1)

As a full-time starter this year, Clarkson is primed for a breakout season for the Braves. Clarkson completed 71 of 118 passes (60%) for 1,416 yards and 16 touchdowns last season in a part-time role. He also rushed for 254 yards and four TDs. St. John Bosco enters the 2022 season as the No. 1 team in the nation. If Clarkson can push his group to the school's first CIF title since 2019, he's a good bet to win Player of the Year.

"We’re really excited about Pierce's development," St. John Bosco head coach Jason Negro said. "His leadership qualities have really come to the forefront now that it’s his job and we’re really excited about what he’s going to be able to bring to the table."

Rico Flores - Folsom senior wide receiver and defensive back

Rico-Flores-Folsom

Flores led Folsom with 81 receptions for 1,157 yards and 11 touchdowns last season. He also shined in the secondary in the postseason making 13 tackles and intercepting a pass in two CIF State playoff games. Expect to see Flores play a larger role on defense this fall. The Notre Dame commit's versatility make him a surefire Player of the Year candidate. 

Here's a breakdown on Flores from Joe Davidson of the Sacramento Bee:

“What stands out about Flores is his commitment. He loves the game, lives to compete, is a top student, and he embraces the big stage. He’s the primary option for a Folsom team that should reach another NorCal final, and let’s not forget that he made a lot of big plays on defense in the NorCal win over De La Salle and in the CIF state final against Cathedral Catholic last season." 

Charles Greer - De La Salle senior running back

De La Salle head coach Justin Alumbaugh said it best: "the sky is the limit for Charles.” A year ago, Greer finished the season with 1,258 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns. The Fresno State commit has a chance to break rushing records at De La Salle this season, which locks him in as a Player of the Year candidate. 

Jalen Hankins - Liberty Bakersfield senior running back and linebacker

According to Liberty head coach Bryan Nixon, Hankins is "one of the hardest workers imaginable.” 

As a junior, Hankins rushed for 1,256 yards and 19 touchdowns for 11-3 Bakersfield. He also made 61 tackles and snagged three interceptions on defense. 

Nico Iamaleava - Warren senior quarterback

Nico Iamaleava

After a brief move over to Long Beach Poly, Iamaleava is back at Warren and he's primed for a big senior year. As a junior, the University of Tennessee commit completed 162 of 272 passes (59%) for 2,244 yards, 33 touchdowns and just one interception. If he leads Warren to a CIF crown, he'll become a POY favorite. 

"He's a special talent," Warren head coach Kevin Pearson said. "Nico is a lot like Bryce Young [who Pearson coached at Cathedral High School] in the sense that everybody loves them. He's such a great kid who gives everyone his time. He's always smiling, accommodating, grateful and humble."

Makai Lemon - Los Alamitos senior wide receiver and cornerback

Makai-Lemon

Lemon affects games in all three phases as a receiver, corner and return man. The USC commit is lightning fast and his versatility makes him a certain Player of the Year candidate.

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Last season, Lemon hauled in 65 catches for 1,062 yards and 15 touchdowns. On defense, he made 28 tackles and had four INTs in addition to returning a kick for a score.

"Makai is, I feel like, the best player pound for pound in high school football on both sides of the ball," Los Alamitos associate head coach Bruce Bible said. "He's the total package at receiver. You can't cover him. At DB, his football IQ is second to none." 

Malachi Nelson - Los Alamitos senior quarterback

Malachi Nelson, Los Alamitos QB

Malachi Nelson, Los Alamitos QB

Nelson is big time. ESPN ranks the USC commit as the No. 1 recruit in the country. He became the first high school football player to sign with Klutch Sports Group for representation on Thursday. 

If Nelson can push Los Alamitos into the final four of the Division 1 Southern Section playoffs, he'll have a shot at Player of the Year. If he manages to give Mater Dei or St. John Bosco a scare in the semi's, that will bolster his case.

Last season as a junior, Nelson completed 170 of 275 passes (62%) for 2,690 yards and 39 touchdowns. 

"I think quite simply that he's the best at what he does," Los Alamitos associate head coach Bruce Bible said of Nelson. "We never go into a game worried with him at quarterback. The team has the utmost confidence in him and he shows it every day at practice."

Blake Nichelson - Manteca senior linebacker and running back

Nichelson rushed for 2,231 yards and 36 touchdowns last season. He also caught 19 passes for 381 yards and seven more scores. On defense, he made 49 tackles, had seven sacks, forced three fumbles and intercepted a pass. If Nichelson can push Manteca to a CIF crown with similar numbers to last season, how could he not win Player of the Year?

Here's a breakdown on Nichelson from Joe Davidson of the Sacramento Bee:

"Blake knocks people into next week on defense and gives defenses fits as a playmaker on offense for one of the powerhouse throwback programs in the region. You don’t get offers from all over without some wow to you and he’s all wow. He’s got to be in the Player of the Year running if the Buffaloes stampede to more postseason success.”

Rodrick Pleasant - Gardena Serra senior cornerback

Rodrick Pleasant

Pleasant has generational speed. In the spring, he set a California 100 meter dash record when he ran a wind legal race in 10.14 seconds at the Southern Section Masters Meet. Pleasant plays cornerback and returns kicks and punts for Serra. If he can use his speed to produce a record breaking football season following his record breaking spring, he'll be in the Player of the Year discussion. 

"Rod is dynamic," Serra head coach Scott Altenberg said. "He is definitely a football player who runs track. He’s explosive on offense and a lockdown defender on defense. We expect him to contribute heavily to our success this year."

Jaden Rashada - Pittsburg senior quarterback

Jaden Rashada

Pittsburg head coach Vic Galli gushes when talking about Rashada. 

“What everyone falls in love with is the arm strength," he said. "The kid can make every throw. He makes throws that some guys in the league can’t make. He pays attention to detail on film. When you just talk to him, he knows what he’s talking about, what he’s looking for. He’s a kid that understands what he wants out of his process. He makes my job easy. … Head to toe, the mental, the physical, the drive that you want in a quarterback, whatever list you want, he’s going to check every single box. … He’s the complete package. Miami is lucky to get him.”

Last season, Rashada threw for 2,220 yards and 27 touchdowns. If Pittsburg is in a CIF title game or even state bowl game this season, Rashada will receiver plenty of Player of the Year buzz. 

Roderick Robinson - San Diego Lincoln senior running back

Roderick Robinson Lincoln

Robinson rushed for 1,273 yards and 17 touchdowns last season and he's gotten bigger, faster and stronger heading into his senior year. The UCLA commit is arguably the top returning tailback in the state. 

"I don’t know if I have words to describe him," Lincoln assistant head coach Jason Carter said. "Intense with the workouts, incredibly football savvy and his football IQ is high. He’s made it a point to take the young guys under his wing this season… He’s a jack of all trades, I can put him at wide receiver, the list goes on and on talking about Rod.”

Julian Sayin - Carlsbad junior quarterback

julian sayin carlsbad quarterback

247Sports.com ranks Sayin as the No. 1 class of 2024 recruit in California. Last season, Sayin completed 181 of 253 passes (71%) for 2,769 yards and 34 touchdowns. If he leads Carlsbad to an Open Division championship in San Diego this season, he needs to be considered for Player of the Year.

“I think we’ve got the best quarterback in the country," Carlsbad head coach Thadd MacNeal said before the start of last season.

Matayo Uiagalelei - St. John Bosco senior defensive end and tight end

2022 Preseason Power 25 Photo Shoot with St. John Bosco. Photo-Heston Quan99

Braves head coach Jason Negro is "very excited" about Uiagalelei and why wouldn't he be? Uiagalelei is an athletic freak who's arguably the top two way player in the country. As a defensive end and tight end, Uiagalelei makes winning plays on both sides of the ball. Last season, he hauled in 24 catches for 335 yards and six touchdowns on offense. On defense, he made 21 tackles with six tackles for loss, plus he snagged an interception.