Arizona’s top high school football players: Meet the state’s best linebackers

Over the next two weeks, we’ll be taking a position-by-position look at some of the top players in Arizona high school football. Our seventh list focuses on the linebackers.

There are hundreds of standout football players in Arizona and these lists are not intended to be comprehensive. Let us know in the comments section which other linebackers are worthy of fans’ attention in 2020.

Kam Cullimore photo by Donna Mundy Photography

Earlier: Quarterbacks | Running backs | Wide receivers | Tight ends | Offensive linemen | Defensive linemen

OLB Adam Navarrette, sr., Superior 

Navarrette was the 1A defensive player of the year as a junior in helping the Panthers reach the state final for a third consecutive year — they lost to Williams after winning the title in 2018. He had five tackles, two pass breakups, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery in a state quarterfinal victory over Anthem Prep on Friday, giving him 31 tackles, two interceptions and six pass breakups this season. “Adam has been a four-year starter who’s a leader on and off the field,” Superior coach Ryan Palmer said.  

OLB Alex Sanchez, sr., Skyline

Sanchez was a second-team all-East Valley 6A selection last fall and has blossomed into one of the conference’s top tacklers. His 74 tackles through the Coyotes’ first six games rank fourth in 6A.

ILB Andrew Morris, jr., Mesquite 

As important a cog as Morris has been in the Wildcats’ passing game, he might be even more important to the defense. He hadn’t played defense until circumstances forced him into the lineup as a sophomore, but by season’s end, he was a first-team 4A all-conference selection in helping Mesquite win its first state title. “He is the best two-way player in the state,” Wildcats coach Scott Hare said. “I’m not sure he is a better linebacker than wide receiver today, but that is where his future is.”

ILB Austen Ruddle, sr., Hamilton 

Ruddle might be one of the contenders for the unofficial title of most improved player in 6A. A year ago, he was a seldom-used backup for the Huskies, but his emergence (44 tackles, seven for loss, five sacks) allowed coach Mike Zdebski and his staff to move Victor Zayas to the outside, solidifying the entire linebacking corps. “He’s a kid who’s really earned his starting position,” Zdebski said.

MLB Brandon Craddock, jr., Sandra Day O’Connor 

Craddock is a prototypical hard-hitting middle linebacker. He earned second-team all-Desert Valley 6A honors as a sophomore and this season ranks second in the conference through six games with 81 tackles. His 10 tackles for loss rank fifth.  

Brandon Craddock / Elena Bernardo – EMB Photoshop

OLB Brevin Czosnyka, jr., Sandra Day O’Connor 

Czosnyka serves as the outside half of the Eagles’ inside-out duo with Craddock, with 47 tackles (five for loss), two sacks, two interceptions and four pass breakups through six games. 

Brevin Czosnyka / Sandra Day O’Connor High School

MLB Bryson Thomas, sr., Centennial 

Thomas transferred from Chicago before last season and quickly earned the starting job at middle linebacker, earning all-Northwest 5A second-team honors before tearing his ACL in last year’s playoffs. He returned from his injury in time for fall practice and has averaged almost 10 tackles per game this season, with 48 (three for loss) in five games.

OLB Caden Shipley, soph., Paradise Honors 

The Panthers had their season cut short because of COVID-19 quarantine, but in the five games they played, Shipley showed he’ll be a force in 3A for the next couple of seasons. He had 35 tackles (12½ for loss) in five games, with his nine sacks ranking second in the conference. “Caden is a serious kid who shows up every day to practice and just works hard,” coach Josh Goodloe said.  

ILB Camden Weeg, sr., Agua Fria 

Weeg earned first-team all-Desert West 5A honors last season for the Owls. He is third in the conference through seven games with 76 tackles and has 5½ sacks.

Camden Weeg / Agua Fria High School

OLB Carson Speer, sr., Williams Field 

Speer was a tackling machine for the Black Hawks last year, when he earned second-team 5A all-conference honors with 146 tackles (14 for loss) for the state champions. This season, he ranks seventh in 6A with 67 tackles (eight for loss, 3½ sacks). “Carson is undersized — under-everything, really,” coach Steve Campbell said. “But, he’s a playmaker. He’s really fast and has a great nose for the ball.”

MLB Chris Montelongo, sr., Cesar Chavez 

Montelongo transferred from West Valley in Yakima, Wash., over the summer and has had an instant impact with the Champions. In three games, he has a team-high 28 tackles (three for loss) and an interception.

OLB Colby Littleton, sr., Queen Creek 

So much of the attention with the Bulldogs defense goes to the Reynolds brothers, but Littleton has carved out a bit of the spotlight for himself. He earned second-team all-Central 6A honors as a junior and ranks third in the conference with 75 tackles through seven games this fall. 

OLB Damarcus Ellis-Dennard, sr., Brophy Prep 

Ellis-Dennard, who received all-Premier 6A honorable mention last season, can move from outside linebacker to a rover position in the secondary with ease. He holds offers from New Mexico State and Fresno State and ranks among team leaders in tackles with 36 in five games.

Damarcus Ellis-Dennard / Lisa Helt

MLB Daniel Fulton, sr., Gilbert

Fulton was a first-team all-San Tan 5A selection last season, when he finished fifth in the conference in tackles with 140. He’s second this year through seven games with 90 to go with five sacks.

MLB Dezmend Esquivel, jr., Yuma Catholic 

Esquivel broke a team rule midway through his sophomore season and was removed from the team. Shamrocks coach Rhett Stallworth gave him a second chance during the offseason, and Esquivel met every requirement placed on him to return to the team and has rewarded the faith with a strong season — his 65 tackles rank among 3A conference leaders as the Shamrocks enter the postseason ranked No. 1 in the play-in round. “He has used this opportunity to redeem himself and become a valued member of the team,” Stallworth said. “He is only 5-5 and 130 pounds, but he has no fear on the field. He is a human missile and will hit like a truck.” 

MLB Hafeez Momoh, sr., Cactus Shadows 

Momoh was a first-team 3A all-conference selection and Metro East co-defensive player of the year at Fountain Hills last season before transferring to Cactus Shadows. He had a team-high 25 tackles (eight for loss), four hurries and two forced fumbles in the Falcons’ first four games. 

OLB Hank Pepper, sr., Chandler

Pepper showed flashes during his junior season, when he played behind two all-conference linebackers, coming up big in the Wolves’ overtime victory over Hamilton with a team-high 14 tackles. The San Diego State commit moved into a full-time starting role this fall and has surpassed his 2019 total with a team-high 54 tackles. “The biggest thing about Hank is he’s just a football player,” Chandler coach Rick Garretson said. “He’s relentless.”

ILB Hershall Gregg, jr., Blue Ridge 

Gregg was a second-team all-East 3A selection last fall and has become a team leader this season for the Yellow Jackets. The run stuffer has a team-high 44 tackles through four games.

ILB Jacob Thomas, sr, Casa Grande 

Thomas, a second-team all-Kino 4A selection last season, played a big part in the Cougars being a surprise Open Division top-eight team in the first reveal (they’ve since dropped out but are a No. 2 seed in this week’s play-in round). He had a team-high 55 tackles and 2½ sacks through the first month of the season, making at least 12 tackles in each game.

OLB James Jaquint, sr., Notre Dame Prep 

Jaquint has been a steady performer for the Saints over his four-year career, and he received his payoff in August when he committed to FCS San Diego. He had a team-high 45 tackles (32 solo, three for loss) before the team went into COVID-19 quarantine.

James Jaquint / Notre Dame Preparatory High School

ILB Jayk Kelton, sr., Mogollon 

A two-time 1A all-conference selection who earned first-team honors as a junior, Kelton led the conference through five weeks this season with 63 tackles. He also has five sacks for the Mustangs, who advanced to the state semifinals with a 50-6 victory Friday over San Manuel.

MLB Kam Cullimore, sr., Highland 

The three-year Hawks starter is the younger brother of Kohnor Cullimore, who is headed to Southern Utah after completing his two-year Mormon mission. Kam received honorable mention all-Central 6A last season and has ranked among conference leaders in tackles this fall — he sits eighth with 64 (four for loss) through six games. “Our toughest player on defense and one of the smartest linebackers we’ve had,” Highland coach Brock Farrel said. “He just understands the game. He’s always around the football and has a nose for what the offense is doing.”

ILB Kellen Gibson, sr., Arizona College Prep 

Gibson has garnered nearly two-dozen offers from Division III and NAIA schools following a junior season in which he earned second-team 3A all-conference honors. He’s followed by ranking among conference leaders in tackles (68, seventh) this fall entering the play-in round, where the Knights are a No. 5 seed. Gibson is one of several seniors who hadn’t played football before the school started its program when they were freshmen. “It’s a testament to their commitment to the program, as they could have transferred to better programs that are close by,” coach Myron Blueford said.

OLB Koltan Cortez, sr., Liberty

Cortez played only a bit role for the 6A state champion Lions last year, but he’s moved into the starting lineup this season and had a breakthrough campaign. He leads the team with 73 tackles (3½ for loss), ranking fifth in the conference through seven weeks.

OLB Kyle Pointer, sr., Casteel 

Pointer had a breakthrough junior campaign for the Colts with 78 tackles, including 16 for loss, and has continued his strong play as a senior, ranking among team leaders with 44 tackles (five for loss) and four sacks. He has drawn interest from FCS Abilene Christian and several Division III programs.

MLB Kyler Orr, sr., Chandler 

Wolves coach Rick Garretson called the second-year starter “the glue who keeps things together for us” on defense. Orr ranks among team leaders this fall with 41 tackles in six games. He has committed to the Air Force Academy, and Garretson thinks “he’ll absolutely fit in there. He’s an academy guy, the type of person you want protecting your country. He’s a leader.”

Kyler Orr / Paul Mason Photography

OLB Landon Mumford, sr., Horizon 

Huskies coach Ty Wisdom met Mumford when he coached the seventh-grader in youth football. Three years later, Mumford turned up at Horizon’s practice, and despite spending most of the season on JV, he cracked the varsity lineup for three games. He moved into the starting lineup last season, and this year he ranks among team leaders in tackles (21) to go with a team-high three interceptions and two sacks.

MLB Malachi Mizysak, sr., Glendale Prep 

Mizysak enters the postseason leading 2A in tackles with 63 (eight for loss, two sacks), nearly equaling his totals from his junior year, when he earned second-team all-Verde honors. “Malachi is a very mature young man who is dedicated, hard-working, and always encouraging,” said Griffins coach Robert Addicott, who sees Mizysak playing in the secondary at the next level. “He, along with the other seniors, are always positive and never show frustration when the younger guys make mistakes.” 

Malachi Mizysak / Anthony K Lam Photography

ILB Malachi Rodriguez, sr., Coolidge 

The Bears narrowly missed a third consecutive playoff appearance, but not before Rodriguez — a first-team all-Central 3A selection as a junior — had a fantastic final season, leading the conference with 93 tackles (15.5 per game, 61 solo) through six games. “Malachi is a great member of the team and a hard worker,” Coolidge coach Rodger Schenks said. “He’s very committed to helping his family and being a positive role model to his younger siblings.” 

Malachi Rodriguez / Coolidge High School

ILB Matthew Diaz-Gonzalez, sr., Superior 

Diaz-Gonzalez, a second-team 1A all-conference pick last season, serves as the inside counterpart to reigning 1A defensive player of the year Adam Navarette on the outside. Diaz-Gonzalez shares the team lead with 45 tackles (3½ sacks) as the Panthers seek a fourth consecutive trip to the state championship game. They won the title in 2018. 

ILB Myles Hobbs, sr., Desert Edge 

Hobbs was a second-team all-West Valley 4A selection last fall in helping the Scorpions reach the state final. This season, he’s among the conference leaders in tackles, ranking 10th with 60 with one game to go. 

ILB Nathan Wright, sr., Prescott 

Wright received all-Grand Canyon 4A honorable mention last season. He’s been a breakthrough two-way star this fall. He ran for 447 yards and six touchdowns the past two weeks and had 22 tackles and four hurries to help the Badgers earn two much-needed wins to qualify for the play-in round, where the 13th seed will play No. 4 Cactus on Friday. For the season, he has 77 tackles (nine for loss), four sacks, 13 hurries and five blocked field goals. Wright is the second of three brothers to come through the program — older brother Chris graduated in 2014, and younger brother Jake is a sophomore and Nathan’s backup at linebacker. 

OLB Owen Thomas, sr., Sunrise Mountain 

Thomas played all of last season with a cast on his right hand protecting a broken bone, yet he managed to earn first-team all-Northwest 5A honors for a state quarterfinalist. This year, he has a conference-leading 15 tackles for loss, ranks second with nine sacks and is ninth in total tackles with 63.

Owen Thomas / Sunrise Mountain High School

MLB Parker McClure, jr., Red Mountain 

McClure was a second-team 6A all-conference selection last year, when he helped the Mountain Lions reach the state final. He leads the team in tackles this season with 52 through five games.

MLB Rev Brimhall, sr., Snowflake 

Brimhall has enjoyed a breakthrough senior season for the Lobos, who have the No. 2 seed in this week’s 3A conference play-in round. His 69 tackles are fifth in the conference through seven weeks and are 21 more than he had all of last year. He has eight tackles for loss and four sacks.

ILB Richard Cortez, jr., Peoria 

Cortez was a second-team all-West Valley 4A selection last season. This year, his team-high 68 tackles (two for loss) rank ninth in the conference entering the play-in round, where the ninth-seeded Panthers will take on No. 8 Apache Junction on Friday.

ILB Riley Nolan, jr., Poston Butte 

Nolan has been a breakthrough player for the Broncos defense entering their 4A play-in game against St. Mary’s on Friday, leading the team with 10 tackles for loss (eighth in the conference) and ranking second in tackles with 52. Nolan also can be found leading many of the competitions at practice and camp. “Nothing better than a great game of dodgeball with football players,” coach Dain Thompson recalled.

OLB Thomas Reinhardt, sr., Scottsdale Prep 

Reinhardt was a second-team all-Salt 2A region player for the Spartans last season. The team qualified for this year’s conference play-in round seeking its first state playoff berth since 2013 thanks in part to Reinhardt’s two-way prowess — he leads the team with 45 tackles (five for loss) and 2½ sacks in five games, and he’s rushed for 401 yards and seven touchdowns on 72 carries.

MLB Trey Reynolds, sr., Queen Creek 

The Bulldogs tackling machine led 6A with 159 last season (earning first-team all-conference recognition) and leads it again this fall with 91 through seven games. Reynolds committed to Utah before the season, choosing the Utes over offers from nearly two-dozen other FBS schools, including Oregon, Oklahoma State, Indiana and Wisconsin. “Trey is the best athlete on our team,” Queen Creek coach Joe Germaine said. “He brings an unbelievable blend of speed and strength to the position.”

Trey Reynolds / Paul Mason Photography

OLB Tristan Monday, jr., Saguaro 

Monday has been a disruptor in each of his two seasons with the Sabercats, finishing with 26 tackles for loss as a sophomore and hitting half that total in four games this fall, ranking third in the conference with 13. He leads the team with 29 tackles. He sports Power 5 offers from Florida State, Iowa State, Colorado, Baylor and Arizona.

ILB Tyler Mustain, soph., Pusch Ridge 

Mustain joined the Lions roster this fall and had an immediate impact, making 15 tackles in a 14-7 Week 2 loss to Yuma Catholic (the Shamrocks average more than 48 points per game). He ranks 12th in 3A with 56 tackles, and his nine tackles for loss and 5½ sacks are fifth in each category.

OLB Victor Zayas, sr., Hamilton 

Zayas played middle linebacker for the Huskies last year, when he received all-Premier 6A honorable mention as the team’s second-leading tackler. The emergence of Austen Ruddle allowed Hamilton to move Zayas to the outside, where he has become a playmaker with 36 tackles and five tackles for loss. 

ILB Wyatt Zellner, sr., Gilbert 

Zellner, an all-San Tan 5A honorable mention selection last season, has blown up as a senior. He leads the state with 98 tackles (seven for loss) through seven games, nearly matching his total for all of 2019, when his father and coach, Derek Zellner, converted him from a defensive end to linebacker. He was forced to play quarterback for two games this season before Hamilton transfer Gavin Goulette became eligible, and he also has played running back and tight end. “He’s been a jack-of-all-trades for us,” Derek Zellner said. “I told him that as a coach’s son, the expectations would be higher, and he’d have to outwork everybody. I couldn’t ask for anything more from Wyatt.”

Wyatt Zellner / Gilbert High School

OLB Zeth Nastal, sr., Mesa

Nastal, who went by Andy the past couple of seasons, earned first-team all-East Valley 6A honors last fall for the Jackrabbits. This year, he ranks sixth in the conference with 69 tackles through seven games, including five tackles for loss and five sacks. Division II Minot State, among others, has made him an offer.

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