2017 Bucket List: Players To Watch This Season

 Just about a year ago I came up with a bucket list of 10 football players I wanted to see during the 2016 season. I enjoyed writing the about the players as much as I enjoyed watching them. With that in mind, I decided to identify a bucket list of 10 players for the 2017 season.

It includes players, in no particular order, that may or may not make other’s rankings or lists. Simply, they are players I want to see in person before this season’s end. Hopefully, you will too after reading about them here.

Cameron Gardner, Athlete – Casa Grande

This senior IS the definition of the athlete position, especially after accounting for 21 touchdowns a year ago, including one passing – on his only attempt – nine rushing, six receiving, one punt return, and four — YES FOUR — kickoff returns. As a kickoff return specialist, Gardner averaged nearly 40 yards per return. Oh, by the way, he plays defense too, recording a safety and an interception as a defensive back. I saw him during spring practice in May while filming a segment for “Brad Cesmat’s Football AZ” and can confirm he is a physical specimen. Cameron GardnerIn his final season, Gardner is arguably the top-ranked athlete in the state and capable of putting up even bigger numbers. So, of course, I want to see one of the best players in Arizona, and I will. I encourage you to do the same.

Casa Grande HC Jake Barro: “He is the most athletic player I have ever coached, and tough enough to carry the ball 30 times per game.”


Marcos Bueno, Wide Receiver– Superior


190 pounds

102 receiving yards per game

13 touchdowns

If there were any receiver on a 4A, 5A or 6A conference team with these numbers as a junior, he’d likely be garnering far more attention entering his senior season. I watched Bueno last season in a 1A semi-final game versus Williams and witnessed the reception seen here. Like several other players in the lower divisions across the state, I believe he would have the same success at any level. In my opinion, he will be one of the most productive receivers in 1A.

According to Panthers’ head coach Ryan Palmer, Bueno has the ability to play football at the next level, but he has the same ability in basketball, his first love. Bueno is worth a trip to Superior, where the football field is a sweet site, too.

Superior head coach Ryan Palmer: “Marcos is an impact player. He has the speed to stretch the field and the athleticism to make plays out of nothing. He will be one of the major focal points of our offense this season.”

Dylan Borja, Running Back – Queen Creek

This junior is the answer to the almost-annual question:  Who is next great running back at Queen Creek? The last back to make at least 20 starts rushed for nearly 5,000 yards during his junior and senior seasons. His name is Weston Barlow. Borja, who was included in an edition of my Sports360AZ colleague Eric Sorenson’s “Zone Read” during the offseason, is a guy that can match the number of games started over the next two years. Dylan BorjaCan he match Barlow’s rushing totals? Absolutely, but if he doesn’t it won’t be because he’s not capable. Instead, it’s more likely the result of the Bulldogs’ other offensive weapons. Spoiler alert: one of them is named here later. Barlow remains one of my all-time favorite Bulldogs. Since Borja is capable of surpassing Barlow’s numbers, he’s must-see for me.

Queen Creek head coach Travis Schureman: “Dylan is a kid who saw varsity playing time with us last year. He worked extremely hard in the offseason to improve. He’s had a lot of competition and he hasn’t backed down. He wants to be the guy at Queen Creek and we’re excited to see what he can do for us.”

Nick Howland, Wide Receiver/Defensive Back – Combs

This senior could be the fastest player on the Coyotes’ team. While that may be debatable, what isn’t is Howland leading the Yotes a year ago in receiving yards and touchdown receptions, accounting for the only four scoring grabs on the team. Nick HowlandLast year on defense he tallied 34 tackles, recovered a fumble, and led the team with three picks. According to new Combs’ head coach Travis Miller, Howland will still start at wide receiver this year but will be used primarily on defense and as a return specialist. Miller called Howland a physical and vocal leader that other players on the team follow. The Yotes are aiming to improve on their 2016 win total. A player like Howland could lead the one-year turnaround the Yotes are expecting.

Combs’ HC Travis Miller: “(Nick’s) speed and aggression is going to be big for our defense. With a player as fast as he is it’s hard to bring him off the field.”

Carter White, Athlete – Poston Butte

Now a three-year varsity player for the Broncos, White is playing for his third head coach in as many seasons. White, who also appeared in Sorenson’s “Zone Read” during the offseason, has been productive no matter who’s leading the Broncos’ program. As a junior, he led the Broncos’ offense in rushing (639) yards, touchdowns (13) and scoring (78 pts.) after lining up at three different positions – quarterback, running back and tight end. As a linebacker on defense he finished with 28 tackles and a fumble recovery. Carter WhiteIn his last season as a Bronco, White could line up at several positions again, including tight end, receiver and quarterback, according to new Poston Butte head coach Dain Thompson. He could also play all four linebacker spots and will share time returning kicks. Any player who can persevere through three coaching changes and remain as productive as White has been deserves a closer look, and I’m going to get one…or two.

Poston Butte head coach Dain Thompson: “Nothing can substitute for experience and Carter has a lot of it. Our team will definitely depend on a number of players, including Carter, to compete at a very high level at all times.”

Zach Herrera, Quarterback – San Tan Foothills

Herrera was on the Cats’ varsity roster a year ago, playing exclusively on defense, where he had four interceptions and a fumble recovery. The only sophomore on my Bucket List, Herrera is currently in a position battle to be the Sabercats’ starting signal-caller under first-year head coach George De La Torre. Why my interest in a guy who may not start until he’s a junior? 

My answer:  lineage.

Herrera’s two older brothers, Danny and Bobby, played the position for San Tan Foothills and Florence, respectively. Danny, a 2017 graduate, was the 2A Metro East Region Offensive Player of the Year last season. Bobby, who graduated in 2015, was selected All-Section following the 2014 season. I have three younger brothers. We all played three sports. Each of them were increasingly better – at any sport – than the older brothers. I figure my theory may apply with the Herrera brothers. Even if I’m a season early, I’m still looking forward to getting a sneak peek at Zach this year.

San Tan Foothills’ HC George De La Torre: “Zach can see the field and has good game-management fundamentals.”

Trey Johnson, Running Back – Queen Creek

Who doesn’t want to see a good comeback? Especially from a guy who was so productive during his freshman and sophomore seasons that he appeared destined to be another great Bulldogs’ running back. Now a senior, Johnson had a change of heart somewhere between his sophomore season and just before the Bulldogs’ scrimmage last August. He decided to step away from football. Earlier in 2017, just before spring practice in May, he had another change of heart and asked to rejoin the team. Trey JohnsonAfter addressing his teammates before a spring practice, they decided to have Johnson back among them. Smart decision, in my opinion. I saw Johnson as a freshman and was impressed. I hear from Coach Schureman that Johnson looks as strong and as fast as ever, giving the Bulldogs’ a dynamic one-two punch in the backfield, and an answer “1A” to the almost-annual question above.

Travis Schureman: “Trey has a chance to be really good for us. With him, Dylan, and Devin Larsen at quarterback, it gives us an opportunity to be as balanced on offense as we have been in a long time.”

Alec Meza, Athlete – Santa Cruz

A senior transfer from Vista Grande, Meza is another “Zone Read” alum. His move from a 5A school to a 2A school was motivated by academics, not athletics, which is a rarity it seems these days. I saw Meza play for the Spartans a year ago and it didn’t take long to realize he was a legitimate playmaker. He stood out then and he certainly will for the Dust Devils, even during a shortened five-game limited engagement in Eloy. He’s competed the last two summers for the 18U U.S. National Team, including earlier this month in the USNT Development Games at UC-Davis. He was selected team captain and rushed for 88 yards and touchdown.

After transferring to Santa Cruz and having to sit five games as a result, Meza has a “great amount of energy” and “raises the awareness of our football team,” according to Dust Devils’ head coach Rishard Davis. Along with Gardner and White, Meza makes a trio of athletes in Pinal County I’m looking forward to seeing.

Santa Cruz head coach Rishard Davis: “(Alec’s) greatest attribute is his humility. His respect for his teammates, coaches, and even faculty at Santa Cruz is what makes him special. I can talk about his athletic ability, but I’m sure everyone is already aware of that.”

Jared Hunt, Running Back – Coolidge

Full disclosure:  I’ve only seen this senior on the court, never on the field, but each time I watched him hoop it up I thought he looked and played like of a football player. And now I want to see for myself just what kind of football player he is. Based on physical attributes alone, I won’t be surprised to see he’s a dynamo on the gridiron. Jared HuntHunt missed seven games a year ago, playing in only three games before a broken hand sidelined him for the season. He averaged nearly five yards per rush before the injury. Admittedly, my interest in seeing the 5-foot-11, 180-pound running back on Friday nights is based on a hunch that he has the goods. I fully expect my hunch to be validated.

Coolidge head coach Bill Godsil: “I think Jared has the tools to be a great player and make an impact for us. I’m excited to see the fire and competition he showed at summer camp when the pads go on. That’s what I’m looking for in a running back and an outside linebacker.”

Noa Pola-Gates, Defensive Back – Williams Field

As a sophomore last year, Pola-Gates was a member of a defense that was as stingy and dominant as any in recent memory. He ended a championship season with 62 tackles, 1.5 TFL, two INT, and a fumble recovery. As a returning starter on defense, Pola-Gates figures to be a standout for the Black Hawks. But he won’t be limited to defense, according to head coach Steve Campbell, who could use him on offense “so we can get the most out of how dynamic he is.” Campbell also said Pola-Gates will return kicks this season, which could be dangerous for opposing kickoff teams.

 The junior was the fastest man at the University of Arizona camp earlier this summer, in addition to running a 4.41 40-yd dash at a University of Southern California camp. I usually shy away from danger, but I’m making an exception.

Williams Field head coach Steve Campbell: “With Noa’s unbelievable athleticism, he gives us a safety net that most (teams) don’t have the luxury of having. He loves to hit and he can run down everything.”