Football practices have officially started and season openers will be creeping up in a matter of weeks.
Last season might have been a once-in-a-decade group of athletes, but there is still plenty of talent to give opposing defensive coordinators a case of the shakes leading up to the Friday night action.
Several underclassmen in the Southeast Valley (Tempe, Mesa, Gilbert, Chandler and Queen Creek) made big-time impacts and observers feel like they are just getting started.
Here are 10 offensive players that will give the opposition fits in 2014:
Sr., RB, Queen Creek
An unheralded emergence became a season of 2,335 yards (8.8 per carry) and 25 total touchdowns in place of the injured Matt Guida. It’s hard to imagine back-to-back 2,000 yards seasons, but that’s what the Bulldogs are looking for from Barlow along with hoping to push the team back into title Division III contention.
Sr., WR, Basha
The change at quarterback might make it difficult to match last year’s production, but at least the Bears have a known quantity in the 5-foot-9, 170-pound O’Connor, who finished last season with 1,127 yards on 61 catches with nine touchdowns.
Sr., RB, Mountain Pointe
Lucas proved last year he was more than just a speed burner on the edges, even though once in the clear, no one was going to catch the track champion. But he didn’t get 1,000 yards solely on stretch plays and pitches. Lucas ran inside the tackles with authority and once he hit the second level, it was all over. This year, with the shortage of experience at wide receiver, expect Lucas to get the ball in open spaces through the air as well.
Sr., QB, Chandler
Perkins is considered the second-best quarterback prospect in the state, but you get the feeling he would also rank in the top three at running back or safety if he was called upon to play those positions as well. The 6-3, 210-pounder threw for 2,244 yards and 24 touchdowns while contributing 808 yards rushing and 18 touchdowns on the ground. The Arizona State recruit just might be the state’s most electric player and if he somehow brings the Wolves a state title, he might get his jersey retired by Chandler on the spot.
Sr., OT, Gilbert
The crop of offensive linemen in the state this is among the best in recent years, according to recruiting guru Jason Jewell, and Miller is one of the top tackles — if not the best, depending on who you ask. The 6-4, 283-pounder is another ASU recruit, and he will be the most vital part of a Tigers’ offense as Gilbert tries to get back to .500 and beyond.
Jr., RB, Chandler
A lot was asked of Lucas as a sophomore, and he responded with 1,351 total yards and 15 touchdowns. What does he do for an encore? Tough to tell with all of the talent wandering around the Wolves’ huddle this year, but it’s hard to fathom the Chandler offense will stray far from Lucas much after being a great 1-2 punch with Perkins a year ago.
Sr., QB, Tempe
The 6-foot-3, 235-pound Gant has progressed every year since playing 10 games as a freshman for the Buffaloes, but it is hard to imagine Gant producing much better than he did a year ago especially with running back Kam’ron Johnson now suiting up for Saguaro. Gant will make do, no question, so it will be interesting to see how close he gets to last year’s 3,425 yards through the air with 42 touchdowns and just four interceptions in 2014.
Jr., QB, Higley
Eddy Zubey has coached some pretty good quarterbacks over the years, but Bloom is among the best and the 6-5, 190-pounder has a chance to really flourish in his second year as a starter. The lanky left-hander already has an offer from BYU and if he comes close to last year’s numbers (2,709 yards, 27 touchdowns, nine interceptions), more schools should come calling.
Sr., OL, Williams Field
The Black Hawks have continually produced big-time offensive linemen since the program started under Steve Campbell, and Cote fits the same mold. The 6-4, 275-pounder is the third on this list to commit to ASU. Cote has played guard for the most part, but could very well project at tackle. One thing is clear — Williams Field will be gaining plenty of yards on the ground behind this future Sun Devil.
Sr., RB, Mountain Pointe
He was the third option last year and still produced 626 yards and 11 touchdowns. When called on more often after Wesley Payne was injured, Leonard produced two 100-yard games as he had 25 carries and 175 yards against Chandler and 136 yards on 16 carries against Desert Vista two weeks later. It was the only two games he carried the ball 10 times or more. The addition of Tyrek Cross, a power runner in the mold of Payne, muddles things up, but expect the 6-0, 179-pound Leonard to come through for some big games.
• Contact writer: (480) 898-7915 or JSkoda@ahwatukee.com. Follow him on Twitter @JSkodaAFN.