Centennial’s 2010 team has a chance to serve as a counterpoint to the heralded 2009 squad.
The national rankings and associated hype are gone, having headed south to Chandler Hamilton. College recruiters will visit, but are looking at four or five kids, instead of the 8-10 players last year.
The Coyotes don’t mind being out of the spotlight. After how last season ended — a 39-game winning streak crumbling in a 16-14 5A-II semifinal loss to Tempe Marcos de Niza — they know how little glowing articles and individual ability can mean.
“The first thing I said to them at practice was, ‘We’ve won state championships with less talent than we had in here. But we’ve lost state championships with more talent than we have sitting in this room,’” said coach Richard Taylor.
This year’s senior class has stepped into leadership roles nicely, Taylor said. They’re using last season as a motivational tool and have forged a bond in the offseason.
“I’ve been playing football since third grade and this is the most together team I’ve ever played with, and the most the word ‘team’ has been used. This is the most fun I’ve had playing football,” said senior center/defensive tackle Jake Abbott. “I’m so excited about what this year has to offer, and I think that’s because we are so close.”
The team’s physical makeup has changed, too. Centennial no longer has a massive offensive line paving the way for an I-back, or a large front seven plugging the gaps on defense. What they do have, Taylor said, is the fastest team in school history.
“What we see now is a lot more spread offenses and no-back sets, so you’d better have kids that can run to defense that,” Taylor said. “We have 10 kids that have run 4.5 or faster (in the 40-yard dash). Even our big guys are running 5 flat. We don’t have the size that we had last year.”
Consequently, the Coyotes will operate less out of the I formation this year, relying on more spread looks — no matter who the new quarterback is.
Juniors Tyler Hawthorne and Justin Sanchez have waged battle for the job since the spring. As of early August, both had played well and neither had separated himself, said Taylor.
The winner will throw to an equally callow, but equally promising group of wide receivers. In the offseason, as many as nine new wideouts performed well enough to merit playing time.
Seniors Gary Ross and Julien Singleton are not included in that group, but can fill in if needed. Ross is the team’s leading returning receiver, but can concentrate on other duties thanks to the emergence of juniors Jesse Callahan, Justin Smith and others.
“We’ve got a lot of wide receivers, and Gary is an outstanding corner,” Taylor said. “Last year, Gary had five punt returns for touchdowns. We just don’t want to kill him with offense, defense and special teams. He needs a break there somewhere, and it looks like it might be offense.”
Centennial’s lead back also is new, but his ascension is no surprise. Senior Vegas Johnson spelled Anthony Hughes last year, gaining 575 yards in 84 carries.
If Johnson is as good as expected, Taylor said, it frees up fellow seniors Jebron Harrington and Tevin Ray to concentrate on leading the linebackers. Both have the ability to be a starting tailback at most Arizona schools.
While they’re no longer running behind a mammoth front line, Coyote backs still have it pretty good. Seniors Abbott, Hunter Finn and Wilson January provide experience at center and tackle.
Abbott leads the line, offense and high school — he’s the student council president. Senior guards Paul Ray and Tyler Brown waited behind Division I signees Nick Rowland and Dylan Lusk.
Finn is moving from right tackle to left to make way for January, who started early last year before falling ill with the H1N1 flu and losing 22 pounds.
“He played the first couple of games and the last couple of games,” Taylor said. “I think the reason he hasn’t been offered (by colleges) is they want to wait to see film. I think he’s going to be outstanding this year.”
A even bigger sleeper success story looms on the defensive line, where 300-pound senior tackle Denzell Jones appears ready to anchor the Coyotes’ 4-3.
“If we were going to give a most improved award, it would probably go to him. Last year, he could not even finish his conditioning tests. Football was a question mark for him,” Taylor said. “Now, football is very important to him, and his grades are going up and he’s a great kid.”
Junior Devin Leon joins Jones inside, and Abbott will rotate in at tackle.
Harrington also will line up at defensive end on occasion. The hybrid pass rusher, who recently signed with San Diego State, looks like a safe bet to improve on his 7½ sacks from 2009.
“He can get to that quarterback so fast, and he plays the run well and plays the pass well,” Taylor said. “Sometimes he’ll be on the line of scrimmage rushing. Sometimes he’ll be off and dropping. Sometimes he’ll be off and rushing.”
Centennial’s back seven is the heart of the team, in terms of experience and talent. Harrington and Ray (two interceptions and four fumble recoveries) cause havoc at linebacker.
Ross and Singleton are proven cover corners, and fellow senior Bryce Pearson continues to improve. Junior safety Zach Hoffpauir, Taylor said, may be the best pure athlete on the team.
Expectations for Centennial have changed almost as much as the roster. The Coyotes are still considered a 5A-II state title threat, along with Marcos de Niza.
But for the first time in four years, they’re not the favorite. Defending champion Scottsdale Chaparral has the 5A-II spotlight to itself.
“We’re the underdogs now,” Ray said. “We’ve got nothing to lose, and everything to gain.”