The hardest-working player on the Venice High football team is Jonas Mouton, and he has ability to match.
A 6-foot-2, 215-pound senior defensive back with linebacker-like hitting skills, a quarterback's awareness of the field and the shifty quickness of a running back, Mouton could rely on natural abilities and coast through high school.
But he out-hustled, out-ran and out-lifted just about everyone else during spring practice his sophomore year to earn a spot on varsity. He hasn't slowed since.
"I was always working real hard," said Mouton, who is quiet and somewhat introverted. "I'm not really a vocal leader. It's kind of unspoken. I'm not really telling people what to do, they just see it, then they watch and follow along."
His hard work has paid off. Several national recruiting services list Mouton among the top college prospects at safety. He said he has received about 20 scholarship offers.
He has scheduled visits to Michigan and Nebraska, though USC and Louisiana State are also among his top choices, he said.
At Venice, Mouton will be counted on to play a much bigger role than he did last year.
With 63 tackles and four interceptions he was selected the 2004 Western League defensive player of the year as a strong safety, but Coach Angelo Gasca said Mouton will move to free safety so he can make more plays.
"That way he'll have an opportunity to impact the whole field," Gasca said. "It's rare to have a player like him who can makes plays at the line, in the middle of the field and in the secondary. My biggest problem is 'Where do I use this tremendous weapon?' "
Gasca answered his own question in the second half of last season: Everywhere, and not only on defense.
Mouton eased into the offense last season, splitting time at running back and wide receiver. He had 228 yards in 21 carries and had 22 catches for 487 yards. He scored nine touchdowns -- five rushing, three receiving and one on an interception return -- eight of which came during the final five games.
But Mouton's biggest impact will be on defense, where he has made a big-enough impact to change Gasca's philosophy. Since the late 1990s, Venice has been known as a high-scoring team run by such quarterbacks as J.P. Losman, Eddie Miller, Beau Davis and Robert Ambers.
This year, the free safety gives the team its identity.
"We've been known as a finesse team, or soft, or whatever you want to call it," Gasca said. "Jonas has made us a much tougher defense. He's a stone-cold hitter."
Mouton, who transferred from Inglewood during his sophomore year, said he had never played offense before last year and still prefers defense.
"It's like a team within a team," he said. "On offense you always have the quarterback or the running back as the star guy, but on defense it's more of a team thing."
Mouton isn't the type to attract attention to himself. He spends much of his free time working with computer graphics.
His upbringing in a small Louisiana town made him more of a homebody than the stereotypical teen hanging around malls or fast-food eateries. He shies away from the attention the recruiting season has brought.
"He knows how to keep to himself," Gasca said. "He's very cordial and respectful to everyone and he's well-liked by the teachers and administrators at school, but boy, on the field, he'll lay you out."
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High school football preview
A look at the top defensive backs in the Southland:
*--* Rk Player, School Ht. Wt. Yr. Comment 1. Darian Hagan, Crenshaw 6-1 185 Sr. Had 13 interceptions 2. Jonas Mouton, Venice 6-2 215 Sr. Tremendous tackler 3. Chris Wellington, Taft 6-1 185 Sr. Another Toreador speedster 4. Jairon Bailey, Locke 5-10 205 Sr. Hits with the best 5. Jason Robinson, 6-1 185 Sr. Four-year standout University 6. Contrell Walker, 5-11 170 Sr. Has nine interceptions Jefferson 7. O'Dell Hale, Monroe 6-1 215 Sr. Has size to take down anyone 8. Brandon Tucker, Wilson 5-10 175 Sr. All-City honoree 9. Terrell Lee, Fremont 6-1 175 Sr. One of best in Coliseum League 10. Jerell Horn, Locke 5-11 170 Sr. Given a fifth year of eligibility 11. Joseph Perkins, 6-2 180 Sr. All-Marine League honoree Gardena 12. Michael Derby, El 6-0 185 Sr. Free safety with speed Camino Real 13. Bubba Atkins, 6-3 200 Sr. Can be big-time player Cleveland 14. Daniel Perez, 5-10 175 Sr. Could be Eastern League Roosevelt MVP