There are plenty of players around the state that will be getting their first shot at the varsity level this season after being a back-up, on JV or Freshman ball last season. The following are players I see that fit that mold of coming up the ranks and are poised for a breakout 2015 season at the Division I level.
Chandler – The Wolves once again are stacked at the skill positions, especially at wide receiver. Last year, Justin Jan was the guy that broke out as the player that was lower on the depth chart as a junior but then as a senior, became Bryce Perkins’ most reliable receiver. The Justin Jan of this year for Chandler as the guy who was just low on the depth chart as a junior but will rise as a senior is Taj de Carrerie. He had nine catches for 98 yards last season and with N’Keal Harry and Kobly Taylor on the outside, Taj could be the forgotten one. If he is, opposing defenses will regret not keeping an eye on him.
Hamilton – 33 rushing touchdowns at the freshman level last season was Jawhar Jordan. Yes freshman to varsity is a big jump but with the game breaking speed that this youngster has, it will be hard for him not to make an immediate impact as a sophomore at the varsity level whether at running back, in the slot or on special teams. Senior running back Rico Tipton has taken Jordan under his wing but this summer, Tipton went down with a torn ACL. Jordan’s role with this Hamilton offense could be even more important than many initially expected going into this season.
Basha – The best player from spring ball that I saw that I was not expecting was Bear offensive tackle Jonathan Nathaniel. And I am not the only one. My colleague Jason Jewell thought the exact same thing and clearly the coaching staff up at Northern Arizona was on the same page as they wasted no time to be the first to offer the big fellow. He is 6-5 and 270 pounds going into his junior season and should be lined up at right tackle. This Basha line as a whole expects to be a big player in helping the Bears get over the hump this season and Nathaniel is one of the most talented pieces on that line.
Pinnacle – Pinnacle loses arguably the best quarterback in the state from a year ago in Brian Lewerke and now has big shoes to fill. The signal caller who’s being handed the keys to the ship is junior-to-be Noah Witsoe. Coach Dana Zupke as well as senior leaders like Justin Mandrola and Dru Dixon were raving about Witsoe and his progress this past spring and summer and think the Pioneers offense shouldn’t skip a beat. They also lost senior receivers Cules Rose, Adam Turner and Gunnar Jamarillo. So making the step up from JV last season is Jake Hilgendorf who could be one of Witsoe’s top targets. He and fellow junior-to-be over at Saguaro, KJ Jarrell, have been working hard together over the offseason. Hilgendorf could start in the defensive secondary for Pinnacle as well this season.
Boulder Creek – Gunther Johnson and Boulder Creek’s leading receiver Troy Reed is back this season for the Jags and the two could be one of the top quarterback-receiver duo’s division I has to offer. But there is anoather receiver coming up the ranks that defenses should not sleep on. That is junior-to-be Jake Christopherson. As a sophomore on varsity last season, he caught 22 balls from 177 yards and two scores and going into 2015, he has put on more size, improved speed and developed spectacular route running. Coaches around the program say that he catches the ball really well and really knows how to get open. The best safety in the state last season in my opinion was Ryan Parentau who will now be playing on Saturday’s this fall. Blake Labno is back in the secondary for Boulder Creek and now along side him with Parentau gone is Kyle Muncie at Safety. Muncie appeared in eight games on varsity in a back-up role but expects to be quite the playmaker for BC this season on defense.
Desert Vista – Maybe an MVP of the passing league season, a player that has turned a bunch of heads this offseason is Desert Vista running back Lelon Dillard. He had just four carries at the varsity level last season but with the impression he has made this offseason, he could end being one of the top playmakers for a Thunder team that is working round the clock to get back to their winning ways. From even talking to opposing coaches, Dillard is a guy they have on their radar when they play Desert Vista this season.
Desert Ridge – Head Coach Jeremy Hathcock plans to let Stephan Gomez loose this season and I can’t wait to see it. This is a guy who was dominant at the freshman level and sat most of last season by a crowded and senior-led backfield as a sophomore. It is hard to categorize exactly what position he will be playing. Over the course of the season we could see him at receiver, running back, safety, corner, linebacker, kick returner and punt returner. He is just a pure athlete that Desert Ridge is excited to use. Hathcock described him as the equivalent of a five-tool baseball player and told me, “He would play right guard if we asked him too. I’m serious! He’s crazy!” Looks can be deceiving with Gomez as he will not be their biggest player on the field, but don’t let that fool you. I am really excited to see how his game translates at this level of play.