Zone Read: Coming Home to Help

“Zone Read” has never been a fan of April fool’s shenanigans so we’re not here to trick, simply treat you.

The Arizona high school football world continues to evolve in a number of ways so let’s get into what’s on the top of my mind this week.

Back to the Buffs

There wasn’t much Darnell Autry couldn’t do during his high school and college career, now the Tempe High legend is back in the fold at his alma mater.

The 1995 Heisman Trophy finalist who helped lead Northwestern to the Rose Bowl weeks later is a part of first-year head coach Todd Hanley’s staff with the Buffaloes. 

Autry, TUHS’s all-time leading rusher who graced the cover of Sports Illustrated in November of ’95, is giving back to the program and will be assisting with what else – the running backs.

“Darnell reached out to the administration and wanted to offer his support,” Hanley said to the “Zone Read.” “He will help us out promoting the program and help at clinics. Hopefully he’ll get the coaching bug and we’ll bring him on (the staff). Right now he’ll be running backs coach emeritus, if you will.”

The rest of Hanley’s staff features some familiar names to in-state football fans.

Derek Hunley, brother of University of Arizona defensive line coach Ricky Hunley, will serve as the defensive backs coach. Former Arizona State star offensive linemen and NFL vets Grey Ruegamer and Scott Peters will also be involved with the program, as sources for character building and motivation in terms of making sure the Tempe student-athletes understand the importance of their grades, weight training, etc. Reugamer is the Green Bay Packers Director of Player Engagement and Peters is an assistant offensive line coach for the Cleveland Browns.

Hanley has said since taking over the program, he’s hoping to keep the talent in the boundaries and believes Tempe can be a “destination school” in the loaded southeast Valley. 

Spring Start Over

The Phoenix Union and Tolleson school district programs are hitting the reset button as they return to “football normalcy,” or some form of it, as the pandemic continues to play out and evolve at the end of the first quarter of 2021.

There is sense of greater appreciation from the programs who didn’t see the field on Friday nights last fall.

“We couldn’t be more excited,” Central head coach Chandler Hovik explained to the “Zone Read.” “It felt like Christmas morning that first day back with the team. Players and coaches understand now that every day out here is truly a blessing and we can’t take anything for granted.”

โ€” Chandler Hovik (@CoachHovik) March 2, 2021

Hovik noted Central and the rest of the Phoenix Union schools are still following all the COVID protocols to ensure student-athletes can compete in track and the other spring sports.

“I know it’s a breath of fresh air for everyone in Phoenix Union to be back in person and to be able to get out of the house and compete,” he said.  

Speaking of Central

How about the sports season for former Bobcat Eric Lira?

After the senior transfer wide receiver helped lead Mesquite to back-to-back 4A State Championships, the multi-sport athlete finished sixth in the state in assists (6.7 per game) for the 12-6 Wildcats who advanced to the playoffs before falling to Coconino.

The 5’11 point guard also chipped in 7.5 points, 3.8 rebounds and was second on the team in steals (2.5).

The three-sport athlete, who also runs track, will continue his academic and football career at Southwest Minnesota State starting this fall.

Fresh Faces in New Places

While the news last fall wasn’t quite as bleak for Tucson Unified as it was the two Valley districts listed above, 2020 was certainly a year of football hardhip in southern Arizona for the public schools.

Nearly every school in the greater Tucson area played less than half their normal 10-game regular season schedule due to COVID-19 resrictions as numbers spiked throughout last summer and into the fall.

One school which saw a great opportunity for success fall by the wayside was Canyon del Oro.

The Dorados featured a number of experienced seniors in the fold, most notably graduating three-star running back recruit Stevie Rocker who’s keeping it local for college.

CDO finished their abbreviated ’20 campaign 3-1 and are now in the process of figuring out who will play where next season.

Head coach Dusty Peace sees it as an opportunity for development.

“This is going to be an exciting year because we have a lot of competition going on,” he said to the “Zone Read.” “Almost every position will involve competition so it will be exciting and help us grow.”

Some returning players Peace hopes elevate a mostly green roster include Carter Mitchell, wide receiver/cornerback Daylon Beck, linemen Donavan Rodriguez ,and massive 6-foot-4, 295-pound sophomore-to-be offensive/defensive tackle Sa’Kylee Woodard. 

So far, Peace likes what he sees from the group.

“We feel we have the tools to be just as good or better of a team, we will just be young and new,” he continued. “We have some of the most talented young players we have ever had in the program but it’s like we didn’t play football last year…we have to get them back on track to becoming a great team.”