West Valley Preps
It was new to Centennial, moving Jacob Fyffe in to his more natural guard position and starting a pair of sophomore tackles with three-year starters Fyffe and center Carson Keltner holding down the inside.
But for Fyffe and Keltner, it was renewing a youth football partnership that began when they were 10.
“We kind of joke around about how we don’t have to say anything. We have a lot of young guys on our line now. We help them out more than each other because we already have that chemistry,” Fyffe said.
Needless to say, the move worked. Entering Saturday’s 5A state championship game against Scottsdale Notre Dame Prep, the undefeated Coyotes are averaging 44 points, 258 rushing yards and 166 passing yards per contest.
The offensive dominance has been obscured by an already-legendary defense and a changing cast of playmakers. But the constants are junior quarterback Jonathan Morris and the five linemen protecting him – Fyffe, Keltner, junior guard George Roeder and sophomores Oscar Abundis and Caiden Miles at tackle.
“We thought that it would be better for Jake at the next level. He’s more of a guard than he is a tackle. Those two kids are tackles — their wingspan and their girth,” Taylor said. “They work off each other quite often. In the beginning it was an experiment because we were hoping one or two of the sophomores would come through. When your first game is against Casteel and your second game is against Bishop Gorman, there could be a total meltdown of one or both of the young guys. It didn’t happen. They didn’t win every battle but it worked well.”
It helps that these sophomores have two mentors who have been in their shoes — in addition to lauded offensive line coach Joe McDonald, who is almost as much of a staple on the Coyotes’ coaching staff as Taylor.
“Any time sophomores start on varsity, it’s a struggle. Both of them went through their learning curve. But coach McDonald always does a good job with kids like that. He knows they need more attention, maybe even coddling,” Taylor said.
Keltner and Fyffe started from the first game of their sophomore season in 2016. That was against a veteran Goodyear Desert Edge team chock full of similarly huge linemen.
While they had to catch up against more experienced and faster defensive linemen, Keltner said his “welcome to varsity” moment came against a peer — fellow sophomore Nassir Sims, who recently de-committed from Washington State.
Keltner said McDonald, more than any other player, showed he and Fyffe the way and saw their potential and acclimated them to the speed of the varsity game.
They also filed away what they didn’t like about their sophomore year, and have remembered it this season as the guide the young linemen.
“We’ve had seniors in the past — and I’m not going to lie to you — that were kind of jerks. They didn’t ever really want to help us through it. I didn’t ever want to be like that with these guys. Granted I do get on these younger guys because I do want the best out of them. But I’m always trying to show them the way and help them — not belittle them because they’re sophomores. They’re going to carry on this tradition,” Keltner said.
Fyffe said the main lesson he’s learned at Centennial is, starting as a sophomore does not mean you have arrived and can cruise through the next three years.
“My sophomore year I went out there thinking I was all that because I was starting. I’ve realized it’s more work, that hard work is what I’ve learn through those four years,” Fyffe said.
This will be the third straight title game for the duo. They are the only Coyotes to start all three games.
And any time their teammates may feel invincible, Fyffe and Keltner can talk about that 2016 title game. Gilbert Williams Field shut down heavily-favored Centennial 14-6.
“When we went to the state championship game as sophomores, we realized just being happy to be there isn’t going to cut it. We were kind of humbled by the situation. When Williams Field beat us, we were picked to go and demolish them. They showed us anybody on their good day can beat anybody,” Keltner said.
Since then, only Liberty has defeated the Coyotes, whose victims include brand-name national programs like Fort Lauderdale (Fla.) St. Thomas Aquinas and Las Vegas (Nev.) Bishop Gorman.
For their first two seasons their main job was fairly simple — give Zidane Thomas a crease and watch him go. Thomas is now a (likely) redshirt at San Diego State.
In 2016 and 2017 Thomas rushed for more than 4,000 yards and filled highlight reels with his unique abilities in avoiding and/or running over potential tacklers.
“The players we’ve blocked for have been incredible and that just makes it more fun too,” Fyffe said.
This year, the Coyotes have a four-pronged rushing attack, shuttling seniors Davon Fountain, Jeiel Stark, Tawee Walker and junior Jaydin Young.
Distributing the carries almost equally, the quartet had rushed for 2,363 yards on 265 carries.
“When me and him were playing with Zidane, you’d just see those huge Zidane plays — blowing through four tackles and going to the end zone. When we’re playing with Davon, Jeiel, Jaydin and Tawee, you can just see the defense wear down, rather than having these huge plays all the time. You can see the defense wear down because (our backs) are so fresh. It’s really cool to watch,” Keltner said.
Fyffe credited Keltner and the rest of the captains for setting the template for this teams steady, relentless dominance. But Taylor said Fyffe also became more of a leader alongside the vocal Keltner.
“Jacob is more cerebral and quiet. He’s a very smart kid. But I think he knew that he had to talk too,” Taylor said. “They both have done an outstanding job this year.”
Fyffe said this year he understands the big picture better.
“I can see sense to it. As a sophomore and even last year, I was just going through the motions, doing what they told me and not even thinking about what we were doing. This year I’ve really seen how organized our coaches are and how well they run our program,” Fyffe said.
Now, the duo are coaches on the field, pointing out protection changes on the fly.
“It’s good but at the same time it’s kind of sad because you know they’re going to leave,” Taylor said. “The two bookend tackles are young, and the young, wild and sometimes out of control guard. Then there’s those two. They are like an extension of coach Comes. They know what they’re supposed to do and they pass it up and down the line. They’re like ants transmitting information up and down the line.”
Fyffe has several college scholarship offers and wants to wait a couple of months to consider his options. He said he would like to study engineering or law.
Keltner has committed to play at the Air Force Academy — and the five-year USAF hitch that awaits post-graduation. He said business-related fields interest him.
“I never really thought about any of the academies. But as soon as Air Force offered me, I got the idea of what Air Force football is about and the commitment after. The amount of education there is ridiculous and I’m thankful for the opportunity,”
Taylor has coached for more than four decades and is used to the high school life cycle. But he admits it will be a little empty when these Centennial program cornerstones leave.
“There going to leave big holes to fill. Coach Comes is really hard on them. When they mess up they hear about it — not so much the younger kids. They know the offensive line rises and falls with them,” Taylor said. “It’s going to be sad when they leave. I’m so used to hearing Carson’s voice back there. And so used to hearing Jacob say, ‘Hello coach, how are you doing today?’ As always, these last few practices coming into the last game can be a little melancholy.”