The new man in charge of quarterbacks at Willow Canyon High School doesn’t have to look far to find the head coach.
Mike Hudnutt only needs to look in the mirror to get a glimpse at his team’s newest assistant.
“My quarterback coach’s wife got a job in Chicago and he left earlier this month,” said Hudnutt, who is entering his seventh season as the Willow Canyon head coach. “I was very happy with the job he did, but I became the quarterbacks coach out of necessity.”
Hudnutt’s additional coaching duties have allowed him to scrutinize the starting quarterback battle waged this summer by senior Taylor Nezdoba and sophomore Tristen Madden.
Nezdoba attended Willow Canyon as a freshman and sophomore before transferring to Goodyear Millennium as a junior. The 6-foot, 205-pounder returned to Willow Canyon for his final season.
“Taylor has the stronger arm, but Tristen (5-10, 165) is probably the more athletic of the two,” Hudnutt said.
Nezdoba will get the starting nod when the Wildcats play host to Deer Valley in the season opener at 7 p.m. Friday.
“Taylor will be starting because his maturity as a senior has shown through,” Hudnutt said. “However, Madden will get snaps and could possibly play another position. Madden’s role will be to learn as much as possible and to keep progressing as a quarterback.”
Willow Canyon finished 4-6 last season, losing its final three games by a combined 13 points. The Wildcats haven’t been to the postseason since 2008, a campaign that ended with a 20-7 first-round loss to Boulder Creek.
This year’s team boasts plenty of experience with eight returning starters on offense and seven on defense.
The senior contingent will be led by Streeter Turner, a 6-foot, 175-pound dynamo expected to have an omnipresent impact on this year’s squad.
Turner serves as the quarterback of the defense at free safety and also plays significant roles at wide receiver as well as the punt and kick return specialist.
“I think my biggest impact comes at safety because defense is what wins games,” said Turner, a Northwest Region first-team selection in 2010. “But I’m willing to play any role to help us win football games.”
Despite 15 returning starters, Willow Canyon must find a way to replace running back Garrick Shelton, who graduated last spring as the school’s all-time leading rusher with 3,891 yards.
In Willow Canyon’s run-heavy offense, that job now goes to junior Antony Thompson, a 5-foot-8, 175-pounder who ran for 678 yards and averaged nearly 7 yards a carry while filling in for an injured Shelton last season.
“As a freshman, Antony really concentrated on getting to the edges (of the defense) to take advantage of his speed,” Hudnutt said. “He became a leader on this team last year and learned how to run between the tackles — and he still has those jets when he gets to the outside.”
Willow Canyon has another returning offensive weapon in 6-foot-1 receiver Diandre Harding, who led the Wildcats with 17 receptions in 2010.
On defense, the Wildcats have a stellar linebacking corps well-suited for their 3-4 alignment.
Austin Desaulniers, a Northwest Region first-team selection in 2010, will have a bookend on the other side in 6-foot-2, 230-pound Brian Keyes, who made the move from defensive end to outside linebacker in the offseason.
“Brian is going to play the strong side and just pound on the tight end the whole game,” Hudnutt said. “I’m sure we’ll find a way to use him as a pass rusher, too.”
Tyler Inman returns at inside linebacker and junior shutdown cornerback Gaetano Florio led Willow Canyon with three interceptions in 2010.
The anchor in the middle of the Willow Canyon defense will be Adonis Hernandez, an unorthodox nose tackle who led the team with six sacks last season.
While most nose tackles tend to be short, wide and heavy, Hernandez stands 6-feet-1 and weighs 185 pounds.
“Adonis uses his quickness and has great anticipation,” Hudnutt said. “His natural position is probably linebacker, but he is so disruptive at nose guard.”
Hudnutt and his coaching staff have left no stone unturned as the Wildcats try to rebound from back-to-back non-winning seasons.
After analyzing last year’s 1-4 home record, the staff even made changes in the team’s pregame routines.
“I think that 1-4 home record had a lot to do with playing tough teams,” Hudnutt said. “But we are going to try some new things to give the players more structure and less distractions before we play home games.”
Hudnutt said this year’s squad has a chance to be the best in Willow Canyon history.
“We could be great or we could go in the other direction,” said Hudnutt, who led the Wildcats to school-best 7-4 seasons in 2007 and 2008. “We’ve had good kids here before, but this year’s group is the best compilation we’ve had from top to bottom.”