There are plenty of outstanding offensive football players in the East Valley ready to put on a show this year. On the flip side are the players preparing to stop them. Hamilton is the preseason favorite in Division I based largely on its intimidating defense, and not surprisingly, many Huskies dot this list. Here are the Top Ten Defensive Players to Watch in 2013:

Qualen Cunningham, Sr., DL, Hamilton

Football games are often won in the trenches, and there may not be a guy you want there more than Cunningham. At 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds, he is a load to move on running plays. When a quarterback drops to pass, Cunningham has the speed and agility to make a beeline into the backfield. The Huskies’ secondary is very good, but it sure helps when Cunningham is consistently bottling plays up near the line of scrimmage. His most recent scholarship offer came from Oregon as the country’s premier programs continue to fight for Cunningham’s services.

Wesley Payne, Sr., LB, Mountain Pointe

The state’s leading returning tackler mans the middle of a stout defense. Payne set a school record with 170 tackles last season and added three forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries and two interceptions. He has a great nose for the ball and is a big-time playmaker. The Pride may be the top contender to Hamilton in Division I football this season, and Payne’s standout defensive play is one reason why.

Nathaniel Rodriguez, Sr., DB, Desert Ridge

Anthony Hovorka was the heart of Desert Ridge’s defense last season in the secondary, and the torch will be passed to Rodriguez this year. He was third on the team last season with 68 tackles and added six and a half sacks. The Jaguars’ defense sometimes gets overshadowed by its potent offense, but the balance they have this year should keep the team in contention. Rodriguez is a big hitter who should have a great impact on many games this season.

Grant Thompson, Sr., DL, Highland

The Hawks have made consistent strides the past two seasons, led by a tough defense. Thompson leads that charge, as he finished the 2012 season with 75 tackles, 10.5 sacks and four fumble recoveries to earn All-Tribune second-team honors. He’s got an impressive motor and returns as Highland aims to make another push up the Division I hierarchy.

Santana Sterling, Sr., LB, Hamilton

Another stalwart on Hamilton’s defense a year ago, the All-Tribune first-team selection returns to again lead the linerbacker corps. The Huskies’ defensive line often does a great job of neutralizing offensive linemen, which gives Sterling and his cohorts a clean shot at ball-carriers. Sterling excels at that aspect and should put up big numbers once again this season.

Jalen Jelks, Sr., DL. Desert Vista

Jelks’ star grew bright over the summer, as he accumulated scholarship offers from many big-name schools and verbally committed to Oregon. He is listed at 6-foot-7 and 255 pounds, and while his college position could eventually be offensive tackle, he has the ability to dominate defensively at the high school level. Jelks had 39 tackles and four sacks a year ago, and those numbers seem set to increase substantially as a senior.

J.R. Hunt, Sr., LB, Chandler

Chandler has the offense to compete with the state’s best teams, but its fortunes may come down to the defense. The Wolves will be led by Hunt, who had 62 tackles, three interceptions and two sacks as a junior. Hunt, who recently made a verbal commitment to play at Arizona, is a solid athlete who was still a bit raw last year. If he takes another step forward in 2013, it will pay big dividends for Chandler.

Jordan Robinson, Sr., DB, Mesquite

Robinson was surrounded by talent on the Brophy defense a year ago but still put up solid numbers, finishing with 52 tackles, two fumbles recoveries and an interception. He picked up his first scholarship offer this summer from South Dakota State and is aiming for more. Robinson transferred to Mesquite in the offseason and should have plenty of chances to make plays. The Wildcats went only 2-8 last year but hope to turn things around as they make the transition down to Division II. Robinson and Juan Giraldo make a nice 1-2 punch in the secondary and will be leaned on heavily to turn things around for the program.

Lane Veach, Sr., LB, Perry

Veach was a virtual unknown after last season, as he reclassified in 2011 and then missed much of 2012 with a wrist injury. However, he performed well at camps over the summer to intrigue college coaches, and committed to Stanford after it offered him a scholarship in July. Veach’s father, Scott, played tight end for Arizona State in the 1980s, and Lane is expected to be a standout at that position on offense in addition to his abilities at linebacker.

Caleb Peart, Jr., DL. Hamilton

Peart started as a sophomore on Hamilton’s defense, which in itself is a monumental task. He is one of the top juniors in the state and forms a devastating line duo with Cunningham. Peart has an early scholarship offer from Nevada, and a big junior year could help garner him more from BCS-level programs. Few teams could run the ball effectively on Hamilton last season, and with Peart and Cunningham at the line of scrimmage, it will be tough sledding once again for opponents.

Honorable mention

Cassius Peat, Jr., DL, Corona del Sol; Dominique Fenstermacher, Sr., DB, Mountain Pointe; Kristian Salinas, Horizon, LB; Levi Sterling, Sr., DB, Hamilton; Juwan Jones, Sr., DB, Hamilton; Juan Giraldo, Sr., DB, Mesquite; Andrew Rodriguez, Sr., LB, Marcos de Niza; Vita Taifu, Jr., DL, Desert Ridge; Natrell Curtis, DL, Mountain Pointe; Joe Nauert, Sr., LB, Chaparral; Cole Neubauer, Sr., LB, Pinnacle; Jordan Schlueter, Sr., DB, Notre Dame.

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