West Valley Preps
At every level of football, it is a more quarterback-driven game than ever before.
However at some outposts, particularly at the high school level, the star is the running back or the stud on defense and the signal caller is merely a cog in the machine. The Centennial Coyotes are one of those old-fashioned programs.
For most of Ruben Beltran’s two years as the Coyotes’ starter, he took a back seat to tailback Zidane Thomas and the offensive line that paves the way. And by all accounts, he did so without complaint.
“Ruben is a very humble guy. He is a team guy first. He never once said, ‘How come I don’t get to pass more,’” Centennial Coach Richard Taylor said.
After the Coyotes’ 42-21 trouncing of Scottsdale Notre Dame Prep in Saturday’s 5A final at Tucson, Taylor said Beltran has the ability to be a star quarterback and that most Arizona programs would built their programs around him.
While he was never going to throw the ball 30-plus times a game as a Coyote, the Centennial coaches realized after the 21-19 loss to Liberty to end the season that more of the offensive game plan should be tailored to Beltran.
It didn’t happen right away. The next week, the Coyotes still were processing the loss and stumbled through an opening-round game against No. 15 Phoenix Sunnyslope, falling behind 2-0 and leading only 7-2 at the half before righting themselves to win 28-2.
The passing game still was largely nonexistent — Beltran was 5 of 10 for 64 yards. With the biggest games and toughest opponents coming up, that would change.
In the final three games of the title drive, against No. 10 Scottsdale Chaparral, No. 3 Liberty and No. 4 Notre Dame, Beltran completed 31 of 42 attempts for 485 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. He also rushed 18 times for 121 yards and a touchdown — after running for 116 yards and a score in the first 11 games combined.
Afterward, he was typically unwilling to toot his own horn.
“My sophomore year, I played behind people and learned from them. My junior year, I lost at the final,” Beltran said. “It was great to get to get that redemption.”
Taylor, however, said the trophy probably does not head back to Peoria if he does not put more trust in his quarterback and his offensive coordinator, Ian Comes.
Beltran had productive passing games against Apollo, Maricopa and Avondale Westview. But in the marquee matchups, his opportunities were scant as Thomas carried the load.
Beltran was 8 for 8 in the opener against Goodyear Desert Edge, 5 for 9 for 19 yards versus Phoenix Pinnacle and 2 for 3 for 9 yards against Fort Lauderdale (Fla.) St. Thomas Aquinas.
If not for the Liberty loss, that game plan may have remained. But when the Lions loaded nine players into the box, Thomas still had a big game, but several drives stalled.
“When things get tight, I want to run it off tackle. That’s what I’ve done for 46 years,” Taylor said. “He (Comes) said, ‘Coach, I’m telling you, people are not going to let us do that. They will bring more than we can block. We’ve got to be able to do more. So I said, ‘OK. I will just shut up. You do it the last four weeks.’ You can see that he’s got a pretty good offensive mind. He’s not just trying to run it off tackle, that’s me. I hired him to do something different and when I let him do it, Ruben handled it.”
The number of attempts did not jump much, but the yardage increased as downfield throws were added to the early staples of bubble screens and short tosses to Alex Escobar in the slot.
Against Chaparral, the stats were a bit misleading. Junior A.J. Jackson took a bubble screen for a 90-yard touchdown. In the semifinals and finals though, Beltran made the Lions and Saints pay when they overplayed the run.
“It was very refreshing. So many people stepped up, like the offensive line. Ruben Beltran played great. Dom came in and scored,” Escobar said. “So many people stepped up. I love all my teammates.”
And in those final two games, Beltran and his receivers, along with the running threats provided by Escobar and senior Jordan Ware, gave Thomas more space on his fewer carries.
He rolled for 278 yards and three touchdowns on 22 carries in the Liberty rematch, then roasted the Saints for 273 yards and two scores in a mere 16 rushes.
“Coach Comes has been doing a great job of play calling. A lot of defenses tend to think run when I’m in, and key in. Really that opens up a lot for our receivers, our play action game, everything. Then once we get them on their heels worrying about the play action, we just run the ball,” Thomas said.
Following a cautious first quarter, Thomas opened the floodgates with a 66-yard scoring burst and Beltran charged through. He finished the quarter 7 for 7 for 149 yards, including a 39-yard laser to Jackson that set up Escobar’s rushing touchdown.
Beltran would add a 30-yard rushing touchdown to give the Coyotes a 35-6 advantage, but his it was not his signature moment. That was a deep ball to Dominique Hampton that landed in stride and led to a 59-yard scoring play and 21-0 lead.
“It feels great, it’s amazing. My offensive line gave me that time in the backfield,” Beltran said.
Centennial’s quiet man did not say much more after that, preferring to praise his teammates and coaches. So the teammates and coaches had to praise him.
Beltran played at Buckeye Verado his freshman year, but his roots with the Coyotes grow deep. His father, Ruben, — the younger Ruben is the third — led the Raiders youth football organization to give son an opportunity.
During those elementary school years, Beltran, Escobar, defensive end Jacob Franklin and linebacker Christian Gomez learned how to play the game together.
“Ruben and I have a special bond because we know how each other plays. We’ve played with each other so long,” Escobar said. “There’s other guys like that too, Christian Gomez, Jacob Franklin and Jordan Ware. We know how each other plays so our chemistry is off the charts.”