The offense gets the majority of the headlines, but playmakers on a defense can affect games in a hurry. The ballhawks are plentiful this year, so quarterbacks must be careful when throwing passes. Here are five players set to make big impacts on Friday nights this fall:
Jalen Brown, Jr., DB, Mountain Pointe
When Brown was elevated to varsity as just a freshman, teams tested him in the secondary. He responded with six interceptions that year, showing off his impressive instincts and athleticism. He had 29 tackles but only two picks last year, although much of that was due to the respect opposing offenses showed him. Brown is one of the top junior recruits in the state and will play a big role on both offense and defense this year for Mountain Pointe. He combines height with a good vertical, so teams will again be wary of throwing jump balls in his direction.
Nick Farina, Sr., DB, Desert Vista
The defending Division I champions did a masterful job of slowing down Hamilton in last year’s title game, and many key pieces return, led by Farina. His cousin, Mike Arredondo, was the Thunder’s leading tackler a season ago but has graduated, and Farina is expected to fill in nicely. He was second on Desert Vista with 102 tackles last year and also had four interceptions. The Thunder fancies itself a contender again, and the play of Farina and his teammates on the defensive side of the ball is a big reason why.
Priest Willis, Sr., DB, Marcos de Niza
The consensus top recruit in the East Valley, opposing offensive coordinators will be aware of the 6-foot-2, 200-pound safety on every play. Willis finished with 52 tackles, two fumble recoveries and a pair of interceptions last season. His numbers may not be gaudy this year, but that’s because teams will scheme to run and pass away from him. But no matter what teams try to do, Willis is a freak athlete and should make his presence known throughout the season for the Padres.
Andrew Curtis, Sr., LB, Brophy
The Broncos’ offensive duo of Tyler Bruggman and Devon Allen is well known, but for the team to win a state title, it will need the defense to play just as well. That’s where Curtis steps in. He was sensational last year, registering a team-best 103 tackles with three sacks, two fumble recoveries and two interceptions and will look to equal or build on those numbers as a senior. There are plenty of talented players around him, but another productive year from Curtis will go a long way in helping Brophy contend for a championship.
Cole Luke, Sr., DB, Hamilton
When Luke latches on to a wide receiver, quarterbacks can almost forget about passing the ball that way. He’s a very good at coverage, but can also be unleashed at safety to roam. Luke was one of the best players on a stacked Huskies defense a season ago, compiling 63 tackles and six interceptions. He is being coveted by the top teams in the country and will likely end up at Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Texas or USC. Hamilton’s defense could again be the state’s best, and Luke will be leading the charge.
While two local athletes are listed among the top five, the breakout candidates don’t end there.
Payne brothers, LB, Mountain Pointe
Landry, a senior, and Wesley, a junior, hit the weight room hard and added size to be about 5-10 and 205. They have a feel for the game and love to bring, well, the Payne. They are hard hitters with the speed to roam sideline to sideline.
Wesley had 91 tackles, a sack and two interceptions, three pass defenses and two fumble recoveries, while Landry had 37 tackles with a sack and two interceptions.
Lorenzo Melvin, DL, Desert Vista
After sitting out his sophomore year because of transfer rules (Maricopa), Melvin quickly became one of the stalwarts of the Thunder defense last season and ended up with seven sacks.
Don’t be surprised if he approaches double that amount as he becomes the program’s top rusher since Devon Kennard.
Others to watch
Qualen Cunningham, Jr., DL, Hamilton; Anthony Hovorka, Sr., DB, Desert Ridge; Luke Taffuri, Sr., LB., Notre Dame; Robert Relf, Sr., DB., Brophy; Drew Burgesser, Sr., DL, Williams Field; Santana Sterling, Jr., LB., Hamilton; J.R. Hunt, Jr., DB, Chandler.
Staff writer Jason P. Skoda contributed to this article. Contact writer: 480) 898-6834 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow his blog at http://blogs.evtrib.com/varsityxtra, or find him on Twitter @Kyle_Odegard.