On the Come Up
If you’re looking for a good story to follow into November, get on the I-10 and head west.
Tucked below the White Tank Mountains, the Verrado Vipers are off to a 6-1 start and outscoring their opponents 251-67 through the first seven games under first-year head coach Dustin Johnson. Quite the turn around from last year’s 3-5 campaign.
“What I love most about our team is our resilience,” Johnson explained to the “Zone Read.” “What you don’t see on paper is that we’re undersized every week. We don’t have the typical 5A, 250-pound kids that we can plug in. We have five true offensive linemen and one guy that floats. That’s it. What we get from them is they know they are [undersized], but they don’t care.”
Some excited guys! Great game Vipers! pic.twitter.com/IY5ElOxSPo
— Verrado Viper Football (@Verrado_Vipers) October 23, 2021
The Vipers’ quiet confidence has been instilled by Johnson, who came over from nearby Tonopah Valley, and a veteran collection of assistants who, as a group, have helped spearhead the turn around.
The continuity throughout the program has stretched through all levels. According to Johnson, the Vipers’ freshman team has outscored opponents 331-54 which bodes well for the future.
For now, the focus is on 2021 and the dominance of Verrado’s defense, which is allowing just over nine points per game entering Friday’s showdown against Ironwood.
“Skill-wise I always like our matchups,” Johnson said of his group. “Our defense plays well because of our athletes and they are very well-coached. Bob Burt running our defense with over 50 years of experience helps a ton. Colin Tibbs and Jhayden Frye are two cornerbacks I am extremely blessed to have. Our linebackers fly to the ball. They play very well in space and when added to the rush, become hard on offenses. Our defensive line you can’t ignore, either and Ryan Wiley’s 11.5 sacks.”
1. Porter Sweet (DM) – 11.5
1. Ryan Willey (VERR) – 11.5
1. Jacob Steward (CS) – 11.5
4. Joe Loveall (GILB) – 10.0
5. Carlos Bravo (NOG) – 9.0
5. Alvaro Chaparro (DES VW) – 9.0
7. Kamron Faraji (HOR) – 7.0
8. David Viloria (APO) – 6.5
— Gridiron Arizona (@gridironarizona) October 28, 2021
Offensively, junior quarterback Erick Santiago has been steady and Verrado’s stable of running backs (Julian Virgen, Connor Gingg, cousin Gunner Gingg, and JD Alicia) have all gotten touches and contributed.
Johnson is also thankful for the blueprint of success put in place by former VHS head coach Shawn Copeland, who left after last season to return to his home state of Texas to coach and be an administrator.
“What Coach Copeland left me was a well-structured team,” he said. “He was very maticulous and had a lot of things lined up very well. His level of organization on paper was very impressive.”
Verrado’s true tests will come over the final two weeks with a pair of home games against 5A Desert West co-leaders Sunrise Mountain, and rival, Desert Edge.
Freshman of Influence
While it’s been a tough year for Eddy Zubey’s Higley Knights, there is promise for future success, especially when you consider the growth of freshman quarterback Jamar Malone II who took the reins earlier this year and simply hasn’t looked back.
“He has been playing very well,” Higley head coach Eddy Zubey said to the “Zone Read.” “He’s been playing better every week. He understands the offense and his reads.”
Nobody knows the pressures demands & struggles of a QB except those who line up behind a center & PUTS EVERYTHING on their shoulders when that ball touches their hands. LIVING & DYING in PUBLIC OPINION w/ every snap!
STAY FOCUSED HUNGRY MENTALLY HEALTHY & GRINDING BIG DOG! 🐍 pic.twitter.com/4S4Hqslm9h
— Jamar Malone (@jamar1malone) October 15, 2021
Way back in May “Zone Read” gave you the 4-1-1 on Malone, who moved to Arizona from California and, to this point, he’s done nothing to disappoint. While his interceptions have been high (seven in five games), he’s thrown eight touchdowns and ran for three more at a clip of 7.4 yards per attempt. His 356 rushing yards are second on the Knights and he’s completing 60 percent of his passes.
“It’s not an easy job but it’s something I’ve been working hard and preparing for since I was five years old,” Malone said to the “Zone Read” when asked what it’s like starting on 6A varsity as a freshman. “The game is faster, everyone is big, has speed, is strong, and has a level of talent. Playing these great teams week in and week out helps me improve on my game.”
1 down 4 more to go! 🏈 pic.twitter.com/vAt4uENUZT
— Jamar Malone (@jamar1malone) October 10, 2021
One of Malone’s greatest strengths as a young, mostly inexperienced player, has been his ability to go through his progressions and improvise if needed.
“He has the ability to make plays for us when things break down which is what you need in a QB,” Zubey explained. “We are excited about Jamar.”
Malone’s quick reads shouldn’t come as any surprise considering Malone is taking AP and honors classes as a freshman.
So far, life in Arizona is going quite well.
“The coaching staff, my teammates, teachers and the Higley community have welcomed me with open arms,” the 6-foot-2, 205-pounder said. “It’s been great and it has made my transition into high school a good one.”
Make no mistake, if Malone’s upward trend over the next three-plus years continues, there’s a good chance he’ll be the next Power 5 quarterback to play for the Knights.