Defense and Special Teams
It’s a hard pill to swallow, as the saying goes, but the 14-week-long trial by fire that is the high school football season has now officially come to a close in our region.
There have been plenty of big-name players and highlight reel plays so far, and a plethora of quality young men toeing the gridirons this fall.
We’ve already tackled the best offensive players in the region, which as a reminder, is comprised of Canyon Del Oro, Ironwood Ridge, Pusch Ridge Christian Academy, Marana and Mountain View high schools.
This week, I will try to sift through the bountiful selection of dynamic defensive talent that can be found at any of the aforementioned schools.
Without further ado, here are the best defensive and special teams’ players from the five schools in our coverage area:
1st Team: John Morgan (Senior, Marana)
2017 Stats: 47 tackles, 6 tackles for loss, 7 sacks, 2 fumbles forced (1 recovered).
The man affectionately known as “Big Jim” at Marana has been a one-man wrecking crew during his time at Marana. Morgan, who missed the Tigers’ first two games, has been a revelation for coach Andy Litten this fall. The 6-foot-2-inch, 270-pound hulk has the ability to chew up linemen and lay the lumber on opposing quarterbacks and running backs alike, and has a motor rarely seen in high school defensive linemen. He finished the year on a high note, with at least one sack in three straight games, against Desert View, Rincon/University and Verrado—giving him a team-high seven for the year. It’s just a shame that Morgan wasn’t able to play a full season in his final year under Litten, but his performance when he was healthy was the most dominant I saw of any defensive end I covered this fall.
2nd Team: Kai Golden (Senior, Mountain View)
2017 Stats: 63 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, 10 sacks.
Golden and fellow senior Tavian Robey put the fear of God into opposing offenses all fall, with Golden delivering the punishment in spades during his senior campaign. Golden is an athletic freak, registering at least one sack in nine of the Lions’ 11 games this year. The 6-foot-2-inch defensive stud had perhaps his best game of the year in late September in a 27-21 win over Poston Butte, with two sacks and tackles in that game. He’s certainly a high-level prospect on the defensive line, with speed and size to boot, and has a bright future ahead of him, regardless of where he plays going forward.
1st Team: Tavian Robey (Senior, Mountain View)
2017 Stats: 60 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, 10.5 sacks.
Robey, the son of former Northwestern University lineman Ray Robey, has forged his own legacy at Mountain View, terrorizing opposing quarterbacks all year. Robey, who’s amassed 106 tackles and 15.5 tackles for loss in his high school career, is a dual-threat—excelling on the gridiron and in the classroom—with a 3.94 weighted GPA to boot. Robey is one of the fastest and strongest linemen I’ve seen in four seasons of high school football coverage, and will thrive regardless of where he commits for college.
2nd Team: Casey Way (Junior, Pusch Ridge)
2017 Stats: 67 tackles, 15 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks.
Way anchored coach Jerry Harris’ line all year long, tossing opposing linemen aside like nobody’s business every game. The powerful lineman is definitely the smallest to make this list, measuring in at 5-foot-10 inches tall and 170 pounds—but finds a way to tear apart opposing players nonetheless. Way will be counted on to carry the Lions’ on both sides of the ball next fall, with the state runners-up losing 13 seniors from a team of 31 players—I expect him to thrive nonetheless.
1st Team: Blake Reilly (Senior, Pusch Ridge)
2017 Stats: 99 tackles, 12 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, 1 forced fumble.
Reilly was the de facto quarterback of Harris’ defensive unit this fall, finishing second on the team to Mitch Maas in tackles, and spearheading a defense that surrendered an eye-popping 9.2 points per game this year. Reilly had 10 or more tackles in four of the Lions’ 14 games, including a career-high 14 against Wickenburg in the opening round of the playoffs. Reilly was a force for Harris, and was a lot of fun to watch during his senior year this fall.
2nd Team: Elijah Carey (Senior, Canyon Del Oro)
2017 Stats: 61 tackles, 7 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, 3 forced fumbles (2 recovered).
Carey is better known as a dynamic running back, dashing through opposing defenses with relative ease this fall. He’s also a heck of a linebacker, finishing with the second-most tackles for the Dorados this fall. He and fellow senior Jeremy Vallejos (who was an honorable third on this list), were forces to be reckoned with for coach Dustin Peace at linebacker this fall, and deserve the heaping of attention that they received this fall.
1st Team: Mitch Maas (Senior, Pusch Ridge)
2017 Stats: 119 tackles, 1 tackle for loss, 5 interceptions, 1 forced fumble (1 recovered).
Maas was the best player on both sides of the ball for the Lions this year, somehow covering the field with relative ease as an ironman for Harris and company. The senior was the team’s leading tackler, and also had the most interceptions as well, including snagging a wayward pass in Saturday’s 35-28 loss in the Division 3A state title game. The senior is the best two-way player I’ve seen, excelling as a slot back and kick and punt returner as well for the Lions, and should get a first team All-State honor from the AIA in the weeks to come.
2nd Team: Ichiro Ramos (Junior, Canyon Del Oro)
2017 Stats: 43 tackles, 4 tackles for loss, 5 interceptions, 1 forced fumble.
Ramos did it all for Peace and the Dorados, leading the team in interceptions, while also accounting for seven offensive touchdowns for the Dorados as a junior. The junior will almost certainly shoulder the load for Peace next fall, with Carey and a handful of other leaders graduating. I have little doubt the 5-foot-9-inch dynamo can do just that, and help the Dorados get back to the playoffs after a disappointing 4-6 season this fall.
1st Team: Tamerat McLeod (Senior, Pusch Ridge)
2017 Stats: 46 tackles, 5 interceptions, 2 forced fumbles.
McLeod shined during the Lions’ extended playoff run on both sides of the ball, with two interceptions to go with two forced fumbles and 16 tackles. McLeod is a force in all facets of the game, with 1,232 offensive yards for the Lions, in addition to kicking eight touchbacks, 39 extra points and two field goals for Harris this fall. McLeod was as entertaining a player to watch as any that I saw this season, and should have a bright future ahead of him, both on and off the field.
2nd Team: Noah Pallanes (Senior, Ironwood Ridge)
2017 Stats: 23 tackles, 4 interceptions, 1 fumble recovery.
Pallanes was another ironman this fall, excelling in the secondary, as well as in the backfield and on special teams for Nighthawks coach Matt Johnson. His impact was felt far beyond the box score, roaming the secondary like a good center fielder, snagging any wayward passes thrown his way. He was a joy to watch, and was a central reason why the Nighthawks made it to the quarterfinals of this year’s Division 5A state playoffs.
1st Team: Jaime Avila (Junior, Marana)
2017 Stats: 2/3, long of 36 yards, 70-76 on extra points.
Avila’s stats are a little misleading, as Marana didn’t kick the ball very often. The junior was the most impressive kicker I saw, however, as I watched him nail kicks of 50+ yards with relative ease during pregame and practice sessions. The sound of the ball of his right foot sounds a bit like a cannon blast, and earns him the top spot amongst the kicking specialists in the area.
2nd Team: Tamerat McLeod (Senior, Pusch Ridge)
2017 Stats: 2-3, long of 35, 39-43 on extra points.
Pardon me for doubling up on Mr. McLeod, but the young man has a boot that more than equals the combo of speed and shiftiness in the Lions’ backfield. McLeod was a dependable special teams player for Harris this fall, and is definitely one of the best kickers in the region, without a doubt.
1st Team: Dakota Haynes (Senior, Pusch Ridge)
2017 Stats: 17 punts, 710 yards (41.8 average), long of 60 yards.
Haynes was another do-it-all stud for Harris this fall, and was excellent at flipping the field in the punting game. His high, end over end kicks kept opposing teams from setting up good field position, which is an underrated aspect that successful high school football teams usually possess.
2nd Team: Jaime Avila (Junior, Marana)
2017 Stats: 24 punts, 942 yards (39.3 average), long of 54 yards.
Avila was tasked with pulling double-duty for Litten and the Lions, and excelled masterfully in both his kicking and punting duties.
The junior excelled at flipping the field, and stifling opposing teams’ special teams units. His booming punts were jaw-dropping, and more than merit him a spot on this list.
1st Team: Mitch Maas (Senior, Pusch Ridge)
2017 Stats: 8 returns, 272 yards (34 average), long of 92 yards.
Maas, as stated above, was an all-around stud for Harris and company this fall. The senior soared to newfound heights in the state playoffs, dashing the hopes of Benjamin Franklin with a 92-yard kick return touchdown on the opening kick of the state semifinals. His combination of speed, power and elusiveness gave opposing teams fits, and more than earned him the spot of top kick returner on this lofty list.
2nd Team: Teon Simmons (Senior, Marana)
2017 Stats: 19 returns, 433 yards (22.8 average), long of 98 yards.
Simmons was a stud, both as a receiver and a return man for Litten and his team this fall. The senior was a legitimate threat to score every time he took the field, especially on kick and punt returns. His ability to find the open field and make guys miss him when he found it was exceptional, and put him in a league of his own this season. The highlight of Simmons’ senior season in the return game has to be the 98-yard kick return touchdown he scored against Rincon/University, making all 11 men on the Rangers side of the ball look foolish en route to the end zone.
1st Team: Jesus Valenzuela (Senior, Marana)
2017 Stats: 15 returns, 316 yards (21.1 average), long of 79 yards.
The senior excelled in the punt return game for Litten and company, routinely finding open field and maneuvering the often-difficult task of returning punts with ease. His speed and ability to make men miss was unparalleled, and helped set the Tigers up with great field position all year long, with is another underrated aspect to successful football teams.
2nd Team: Mitch Maas (Senior, Pusch Ridge)
2017 Stats: 13 returns, 413 (34 average), long of 92 yards.
I hate to sound like a broken record (and a Pusch Ridge homer), by continuously including Mr. Maas on my list, but the senior is just that good, folks. Maas has been a one-man machine in the return game, with back-to-back 100+ yard punt return games against Tanque Verde and Santa Rita in October. Maas was a lot of fun to watch, but probably nowhere near as much fun to try and stop. A tip of the journalist’s cap to the young fella for an all-around year to remember for the Lions.