2018 Preps football preview: Centennial

Centennial senior center Carson Keltner, right, pushes through the defensive line during blocking drills on Aug. 1 at Centennial High School in Peoria. [Jacob Stanek/West Valley Preps]

2017 RECORD: 13-1
PLAYOFFS: 5A State Champion
REGION: 5A Northwest
COACH: Richard Taylor (28th year)
OFFENSE: I formation, Spread
KEY RETURNEES: Carson Keltner, Sr. C; Kieran Clark, Sr. DB/WR; A.J. Jackson, Sr. WR/DB/KR/P; Jaydin Young, Jr. S/RB; Cire Fields, Sr. LB/DB; Jacob Fyffe, Sr. T; Tyler Watkins, Sr. DT
NEWCOMERS TO WATCH: Tawee Walker, Sr. RB/DB (transfer-Nevada); Davon Fountain, Sr. RB/DB (transfer-Millennium)

Matt Loeschman
West Valley Preps

Losing 35 seniors off a state championship team would be a big concern for most teams. But when you’re the Centennial Coyotes, you don’t rebuild — you simply reload.

The 2018 Coyotes will rely on the leadership of 28 varsity seniors as the team seeks to repeat as Class 5A state champions and win their fourth title in the past five years. Centennial has won six state championships in its storied history (2006, 2007, 2008, 2014, 2015, 2017).

Head Coach Richard Taylor is just five wins from a major milestone but that is the last thing on his mind. The Coyotes are hard at work preparing for their Aug. 17 season opener at Queen Creek Casteel.

“We still have a lot of work to do but we are getting there,” said Taylor, whose career coaching record of 295-109-6 has him five wins shy of the 300 Club. “We lost a lot of talented players but we have kids returning who want to learn and got good experience last year. They realize that last year’s seniors are gone and it’s their time to shine.”

Senior center Carson Keltner, returning as a third-year starter to anchor a talented offensive line, gave an honest assessment of practice during the first week of August.

“There have been a couple bumps in the road but these are mental errors that we have time to fix,” Keltner said. “We are shaking the rust off. But we have a lot of chemistry on our offensive line and I know I can count on those guys next to me, shoulder to shoulder.”

Do-it-all senior A.J. Jackson, a wide receiver/defensive back/kick returner/punter, agreed.

“The heat is beating everybody up but we are doing all we can to get ready for the season,” said Jackson.

The Coyotes have a lot to look forward to. Despite returning just four starters on each side of the ball, nearly every starter that takes the field this fall got significant experience during Centennial’s 2017 run to the title.

Offensively, the Coyotes lost a pair of players who were instrumental to the championship — tailback Zidane Thomas and quarterback Ruben Beltran. Thomas rushed for more than 4,000 yards the past two seasons and Beltran was an important leader who emerged in the game plan in the playoffs.

Junior Jonathan Morris now takes the reins at quarterback and he’s got a stable of talented running backs behind him. Morris saw some playing time as a sophomore and Taylor believes Morris’ time is now.

“We expect Jonathan to make plays with both his arm and his feet,” Taylor said. “We want him to be the glue that keeps the offense together. He waited his turn and I think he learned a lot during that time.”

To a man, the Coyotes are confident Morris can step in seamlessly at the most important position on the field.

Keltner called Morris a gifted, natural passer.

Jackson (230 receiving yards, 1 TD in 2017) will be one of Morris’ main targets in the Coyotes’ balanced offense that alternates between an I formation and a spread.

“I’ve played with J-Mo before, mostly in 7-on-7, and he’s a great quarterback,” said Jackson.

While Thomas heading to San Diego State to continue his football career, the tailback cupboard is far from empty.

Junior Jaydin Young will add some carries after a breakout year at safety and he is joined by a pair of electrifying newcomers — Tawee Walker, a senior transfer from Mojave High School in Nevada (1,554 yards, 18 rushing TDs in 2017), and Davon Fountain, a senior transfer from Goodyear Millennium who rushed for 1,000 yards last season.

Due to in-state transfer rules, Fountain may have to sit out the first five games of the season. Former Millennium teammates Frankie Hollinquest (a senior defensive tackle) and Brad Young (a junior tight end) are in the same boat.

Taylor said the team is waiting to hear the results of an appeal to the Arizona Interscholastic Association that would allow the former Tigers to suit up and play in Week 1.

“This might be the best running back depth that we’ve ever had here and that’s saying a lot,” the head coach said.

Centennial senior cornerback/receiver Kieran Clark catches a pass during ball handling drills on Aug. 1 at Centennial High School in Peoria. [Jacob Stanek/West Valley Preps]
Besides Jackson, Morris will look to receivers Jeiel Stark (189 receiving yards, 2 touchdowns in 2017), Dyelan Miller (294 receiving yards, 5 scores as a sophomore), and junior Eric Haney.

Another three-year offensive line starter, senior tackle Jacob Fyffe, returns, joining Keltner to form a dominating duo.

The Coyotes’ other potential starting linemen — sophomores Oscar Abundis Jr., Felipo Teoffilo and Caiden Miles — will look to Keltner and Fyffe for leadership.

“Carson (Keltner) is our emotional leader,” Taylor said. “It’s pretty easy to see that. And our older guys will be helping out the younger ones on the offensive line.”

Taylor, the only varsity head football coach in school history, has plenty to smile about as he watches his 4-3 defense prepare.

Getting after the quarterback on the defensive line will be senior Tyler Watkins (37 tackles in 2017), junior Derek Jodarski, junior Xavier Garcia and senior Eli Tabanico.

The linebackers will be led by senior Cire Fields, whose father played football at Arizona State. Centennial is loaded with speed and skill in a secondary.

Senior Kieran Clark is the leader and will be joined by a group that includes Jackson (20 tackles), Young (97 tackles, 4 interceptions) and Haney (2 picks).

“Kieran Clark has been offered by (several teams) and will have more offers coming in,” Taylor noted. “He’s very much like how Dom Hampton was last year — an excellent corner.”

Walker and Fountain can also play defensive back.Clark said this Coyotes’ defense will make a name for itself.

“Everybody is hungry. This unit has experience and we are going to be aggressive,” Clark said. “We plan to shut people down.”

Jackson will again punt after an average of 40-plus yards per kick as a junior led to all-state honors. Kicking is expected to be handled by Jonathan Gonzalez. Jackson is also slated to handle kickoff returns and punt returns.

Centennial’s 2018 schedule is stacked with powerhouse teams. The revamped 5A Northwest Region will be competitive with Apollo, Sunnyslope, Ironwood, Kellis and Sunrise Mountain joining Centennial.

“This is the best region we’ve been part of in a long time,” Taylor said.

In non-region play, the Coyotes will face Casteel, Vail Cienega, Tucson Ironwood Ridge and Millennium. On Aug. 31, Centennial welcomes Las Vegas Bishop Gorman to town in a game that will garner national attention.

“I don’t think it does any good to play an easy schedule to get wins under your belt,” said Taylor, whose Coyotes beat then No. 3-nationally ranked St. Thomas Aquinas of Florida last year. “What you need to do is find some teams that push you and give you a chance to see where you need to improve. We learned last year that with preparation and hard work, we can play with anybody.”

But that is Week 3 (Centennial has a bye in Week 2). Before that, the Coyotes must focus on Casteel, a program making a big leap to Class 5A after winning the Class 3A state title last year with a perfect 14-0 record.

On the flip side the Colts have a senior class for the first time and return every starter.

“They are an outstanding team — they know nothing but success,” Taylor said. “No one should be fooled by what they are doing.”

Jackson, who said his goal is to earn a college scholarship, cannot wait for the opener to show off his playmaking ability.

“Being the defending champ. you have to carry yourself like a champion. That means coming back even better than last year,” he said. “Casteel has been talking — we are going to let our play do the talking.”

Keltner said the Coyotes will be ready to take their show on the road.

“I am looking forward to the pads clicking — we won’t underestimate Casteel,” Keltner said. “Our standards are always high and our fans and community expect wins. The end goal is always another championship.”

Centennial senior receiver/safety/punter/kickoff returner A.J. Jackson looks in a pass Aug. 1 during practice. [Jacob Stanek/West Valley Preps]

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