Checking in on the Champs
Defending 6A state champion Chandler hits reset
WEEKLY BLOG: 6/30/19
When we last saw the Chandler Wolves under the bright lights of the playoffs, it was DeCarlos Brooks rushing for six touchdowns in a 65-28 victory over district rival Perry. In the round before that, it was the gutsy decision by head coach Shaun Aguano to go for two in overtime against Highland. When Jacob Conover completed the conversion attempt to Brayden Liebrock, it raised the three-year starting QB's record to 34-4 (he added one more to that win total in the title game).
And now, as we look forward to the 2019 season. . . . all those guys are gone.
Brooks will be suiting up for Cal as part of a six-pack of recruits the Golden Bears secured from the '19 class. Conover, currently on a church mission, will be at BYU when he returns. Liebrock, who finished with 11 touchdowns, joins Notre Dame's Jake Smith as Texas won out for two of Arizona's biggest recruits. Even Aguano has moved on, and is already making a big impact. As Arizona State's new running backs coach, he secured a commitment from Ohio's top back, DeaMonte Trayanum, earlier this week.
So, after three consecutive state titles (and four in five years), is this the break everyone else has been waiting for? A chance to catch the Wolves in a down year?
Don't go writing off Chandler quite yet.
"We have a lot of players and a lot of talent," new head coach Rick Garretson said. "This will be the fastest and most talented team since I've been at Chandler."
That's saying something, because Garretson has been with the Wolves' program since 2010. He began working with the quarterbacks and was the passing game coordinator and co-offensive coordinator the past three seasons.
Chandler returns five players on defense and four on offense. Three of the offensive returners are linemen, an area of the team in which consistency is the key. Moving from the inside out, center Tevainui Neher started as a sophomore last year. He'll be joined by seniors Nehemiah Magalei (OG) and Alexis Castro (OT).
Mikey Keene is the Wolves' new starting quarterback. Those that check MaxPreps will see that he attempted just 10 varsity passes last year (completing nine). But, he had a year to learn while watching Conover. Plus, the last time he was taking the snaps, Keene had a lot of success. As the starter of the 2017 freshman team, he threw 32 touchdown passes and led the Wolves to a 9-0 record while averaging 44.8 points per game.
"He's got a very good pocket awareness," Garretson said. "He's the best thrower on the run that we've had since I've been at Chandler."
Keene had a very good summer. He was named the MVP for the passing tournament at Northern Arizona in June. Chandler employs the same playbook for 7-on-7 that it will use for 11-on-11 when the season starts.
Here's Keene completing a pass to fellow junior Jalen Richmond in the Scottsdale Tournament last May.
One constant in Chandler's state championship run has been production at the running back position. Brooks rushed for 2,229 yards making it the third straight year that one of the team's backs broke the 2,000-yard barrier (along with TJ Green and Drake Anderson). Jaheim Brown-Taylor gained 755 yards in just 86 carries (8.8 yds/attempt) as the backup running back. He has offers from six schools including New Mexico State, San Diego State, and Wyoming.
"He's a 10.4 100-meter guy," Garretson said of Brown-Taylor. "You can tell he's a weight room guy. His film shows his explosive speed."
Brooks toted the rock on 57 percent of the Wolves' running plays last year. Brown-Taylor may have to share the load a little more, particularly in the second half of the season.
The deep backfield also includes Nicolas Nesbitt, who averaged 8.6 yards per carry in his 39 attempts and scored seven touchdowns. Nesbitt was the state runner up in the long jump last spring as a sophomore. Rodney Clement is another junior that will get opportunities. Finally, a big transfer moved over to Chandler with Eli Sanders. Sanders rushed for 878 yards and nine touchdowns as a sophomore at Mountain Pointe last season. He'll have to sit the first five games due to the AIA transfer rule, but will then have a season and a half to shine for the Wolves.
A total of 70 percent of the pass receptions last season were caught by seniors. More speed is present in this area led by Quaron Adams, who starred for the freshman team last year (which went 9-0 and flat out dominated). Adams also won the Division I title in the 100-meters last May.
"He's a Tyreke Hill of high school ball," Garretson said. "You can put him anywhere. Quaron is electric with the ball in his hands."
Another one of the go-to guys this summer was Richmond. There is depth at this position as well with Kyion Grayes, who already has four offers after his freshman year, including both Arizona and Arizona State. Another player from the '22 class is Nason Coleman, who holds offers from ASU and BYU. Junior Eli Swope plays H-back and recently had a solid performance at a Vanderbilt camp. Senior tight end Jay McEuen (who is 6-4) rounds out the group.
Maldonado was the rare Chandler player that saw time on both sides of the ball last year. He had a big season with 782 receiving yards and eight touchdowns in just eight games. His year ended a couple weeks before the playoffs with a labrum tear. Garretson said Maldonado will definitely be on the defensive side of the ball (as a safety), but time will tell if he's used on offense again. As noted above, there is a lot of depth at the receiving positions.
The secondary will include junior Kentrell Williams Jr. and senior Ramone Robinson. Both saw significant playing time last year.
And another of those '22 kids is already making plays as Franky Morales picked off a pass in the Wolves' San Diego State tournament earlier this month.
Chandler had success over the summer with their linemen winning the Makoa Big Man Challenge. The skill position players won the NAU tournament and reached the finals in San Diego.
"We always tell the kids that this is a way to evaluate and see how we compete," Garretson said of the June non-padded events. "We saw very good improvement in each tournament."
It's also worth noting that Chandler defeated Chaparral three times over the summer after getting eliminated by the Firebirds in the Scottsdale tournament. Also, CHS took all four of its meetings with Pinnacle, one of the state's top contenders for the new Open Division championship.
There aren't any 4-year starters on the Wolves as the team opts to keep their freshmen together and then call some up for the playoffs. Magalei, Maldonado, and linebacker Tate Romney will all be three-year starters this season. Romney is the team's returning leader in tackles with 92 last year.
Chandler will head back to Flagstaff from July 8-11 for a camp. They'll practice three times a day (one is special teams) and have high-tempo competitions, which will be light on the 7-on-7 work after the busy summer.
For the seventh year in a row, Chandler will take on out-of-state competition. The Wolves open the season on Aug. 23 just outside Las Vegas when they travel to take on Liberty. The Patriots may be familiar to fans of high school football in Arizona. They defeated Saguaro each of the past two years. Chandler will also play in California on Sept. 14 against Capital Christian, a school in Sacramento that went 13-1 and played in a CIF bowl game last season.
So when the dust settles, we'll see if the younger players at Chandler are ready to carry on what has been laid before them. The postseason competition will be ramped up as the best teams in 5A and 4A will likely be represented in the new Open tournament.
"It's a great program to be associated with," Garretson said. "Shaun has built it up and we just want to keep it going from there."