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

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 eighth list focuses on the defensive backs.

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 defensive backs are worthy of fans’ attention in 2020.

Devon Grubbs photo courtesy of Desert Vista High School

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

S Amari Gilmore, jr., Poston Butte

Gilmore transferred from Richards High School in Oak Lawn, Ill., where he was a postseason callup for the Bulldogs. He leads the Broncos in tackles with 66 (three for loss) and ranks among the 4A leaders in interceptions with four. He has broken up a team-high six passes and recovered two fumbles as Poston Butte takes the No. 6 seed into this week’s play-in round. “Amari laughs and smiles and has fun like no other player I have ever coached,” said coach Dain Thompson. “He dances and celebrates this game, no matter the stakes.”

S Ammon Allen, sr., Highland

Allen, a second-team all-Central 6A selection for the Hawks last season, has drawn interest from all three FBS service academies as well as New Mexico State, Eastern Michigan and Northern Arizona. This year, he is second on the team with 33 tackles through seven games.

CB Andrell Barney, sr., Basha

Barney has been a two-way standout for the Bears throughout his career, although his future most likely lies in the secondary with the University of New Mexico. Besides making 20 catches (three touchdowns) at receiver, the all-Premier 6A second-team pick also has made 24 tackles and broken up six passes at corner. “He’s one of the better pure athletes in the state,” Basha coach Chris McDonald said.

Andrell Barney / Basha High School

S Avery Lambert, sr., Horizon

Lambert might be a little undersized as a strong safety (5-10, 180), but Huskies coach Ty Wisdom said there’s no questioning his work ethic. “Being undersized, he just outworks everybody,” Wisdom said. “He’s been in the program since he was a sophomore, and he has never missed a practice or a workout.” Lambert earned second-team all-Northeast Valley honors as a junior and finds his way on the field in the secondary and as a wideout on offense. He recently added an offer from Division II Southern Nazarene to several he’s received from D-III and NAIA programs.

CB Ben Morrison, jr., Brophy Prep

The son of former NFL defensive back Daryl Morrison was a second-team all-Premier 6A selection a year ago. He ranks fifth among Arizona’s Class of 2022 recruits according to 247Sports and has had a solid junior season with 36 tackles (three for loss). He also shines on special teams, averaging 28 yards per kickoff return and blocking two field goals.

Ben Morrison / Lisa Helt

CB Carlos Griffin, soph., Saguaro

The sophomore was pressed into duty a little earlier than the Sabercats coaching staff expected because of injuries and several transfers having to sit out the first half of the season. Griffin, who already has an offer from Syracuse, made the most of his opportunity with three interceptions (two returned for touchdowns) in Week 2 against Maricopa and a 5A-leading four this season. 

S Cayden Camacho, sr., Basha

Camacho, who received all-Premier 6A honorable mention a year ago, leads the team with 56 tackles through the Bears’ first five games this season. He has broken up five passes.

S Chaz Clemons, sr., Desert Edge

Clemons transitioned from cornerback to safety last season at Pebble Hills in El Paso, Texas, and he earned offers from Navy, Cornell and Valparaiso. This season for the Scorpions, he has 28 tackles, four pass breakups and two interceptions.

S Christopher Hernandez, sr., Vista Grande

Hernandez has had a breakthrough senior season for the Spartans, ranking third in 4A with 81 tackles.

CB Cole Martin, soph., Hamilton

Martin’s father, Demetrice, is the defensive backs coach at Colorado, joining the staff in March after two seasons at the University of Arizona. Cole stayed behind in Chandler, much to the delight of the Huskies coaching staff, as he has developed into one of the nation’s top cornerback recruits with 19 FBS offers. He has 18 tackles, six pass breakups and two interceptions, and he’s become a feared kick returner — as he showed with two electric returns in a nationally televised win over Saguaro last month.

Cole Martin / Heather Hackett

CB Cole Shivers, soph., Saguaro

Shivers is one of several standouts in the secondary who transferred to the Scottsdale campus during the offseason. As a freshman starter at Red Mountain, he received all-East Valley 6A honorable mention. He has an offer from Florida State.  

CB Demetrius Harmon, jr., Washington

Harmon might be one of the smallest players in 4A at 5-4, 125 pounds, but that hasn’t stopped him from leading the state with seven interceptions (two returned for touchdowns). He’s helped the Rams turn around from a 4-6 season last year to a 6-1 record and a spot in this week’s 4A play-in round.

CB Denzel Burke, sr., Saguaro

Burke entered the season as one of the state’s top recruits. He committed to Ohio State after a junior year in which he just scratched the surface of his potential, earning all-Desert Sky 4A honorable mention. Unfortunately, a shoulder injury suffered in the Sabercats’ opener against Brophy Prep led to season-ending surgery. “It really hit me hard,” Burke told Cleveland.com. “I really wanted to play my last year. I was really looking forward to it. I’m a captain, too, so that role of just being a leader for my guys, and letting my game talk for itself, it kind of got cut short because of this.”

S Devin Sanchez, sr., Centennial

Sanchez moved from linebacker, where he was a first-team 5A all-conference selection last year, to free safety this fall and hasn’t missed a beat. He shares the team lead with six tackles for loss and is third on the Coyotes with 43 tackles (27 solo). In a Week 7 victory over Chaparral, he made his first interception and broke up two passes.

S Devon Grubbs, jr., Desert Vista

Grubbs has been a standout in all three phases for the Thunder during his career. He earned second-team all-Central 6A honors as a kick returner last fall, leads the team with 172 rushing yards through four games and averages 13 tackles per game with two pass breakups at strong safety.

Cayden Camacho / Heather Hackett

S Donovan Guyton, jr., Williams Field

The physical free safety helped lead the Black Hawks to the 5A state title last year, earning first-team all-conference honors as a sophomore. This season, Guyton has 19 tackles, a team-high five pass breakups and an interception in five games.

S Emeka Ogbonna Jr., sr., ALA-Gilbert North

Ogbonna transferred from Brophy Prep, where he was an all-Premier 6A first-team kick returner last season, because of financial issues related to COVID-19. Since becoming eligible, he has 17 tackles and two pass breakups in three games for the Eagles, the No. 4 seed in this week’s 3A play-in round. 

S George Ramirez, sr., Red Mountain

Ramirez joined the Mountain Lions varsity squad for its playoff run as a freshman, and he hasn’t been dislodged from the starting strong safety position since, earning all-East Valley 6A honors each of the past two seasons — including first-team last fall. He has offers from Northern Arizona and Northern Colorado and has 25 tackles in five games this year.

S Greg Rodriguez, sr., Coolidge

Rodriguez, a second-team all-Central 3A pick a year ago, was having a huge senior season as a running back (506 yards, seven touchdowns) and safety (56 tackles, four pass breakups) before missing the final two weeks of the Bears’ season.

CB Howard Russell, sr., Phoenix Christian

Russell was a first-team 2A all-conference selection last season who helped the Cougars reach the state final, where they lost to Round Valley. This fall, they jumped to 3A, where Russell leads the conference with six interceptions, second to Washington’s Demetrius Harmon among state leaders. Russell also has rushed for nearly 1,200 yards and 17 touchdowns for Phoenix Christian, which has the No. 6 seed in the conference play-in round.

S Hunter Barth, sr., Queen Creek

Barth committed to the University of California in April after a junior season in which he earned second-team 6A all-conference honors. This fall, he has 22 tackles, four pass breakups and two interceptions in the Bulldogs’ first six games. “Hunter is one of the most competitive athletes that I’ve ever known,” Queen Creek coach Joe Germaine said. “He’s amazingly talented as a defensive back and receiver.”

S Jack Howell, sr., Hamilton

Howell’s father, John, played five NFL seasons, and his sister, Jaelin, has played for the U.S. U-17 and U-20 national soccer teams. Jack has ranked among the 6A leaders in tackles in his first season with the Huskies since transferring from Valor Christian in Highlands Ranch, Colo. The Colorado State commit starred on offense in Colorado, but with the practice limitations placed over the summer because of the pandemic, Hamilton coaches had him focus on free safety, where he’s made a team-high 56 tackles and broken up four passes. “He’s the quarterback of our defense,” coach Mike Zdebski said. “With so many checks he had to learn at safety, it made it difficult to get him out of his cohort to work on offense.”

Jack Howell / Annalisa Masunas

S Jack Whitten, sr., Chaparral

Whitten will further his career at Brown University. His senior season was delayed by the Firebirds’ three-week COVID-19 quarantine, and he didn’t get into the lineup until they played Casteel in Week 6.

S Jacob Franze, jr., Chaparral

Franze earned a starting job from Day 1 last season with the Firebirds. This year, he ranks among team leaders in tackles with 10 through three games.

CB Jaden Crockett, jr., Mountain Pointe

Crockett was a two-way starter at Alhambra last season, earning first-team all-Metro 6A honors before transferring to Mountain Pointe in September after the Phoenix Union High School District suspended football operations. He leads the Pride with 44 tackles (31 solo) in seven games and has broken up four passes.  

CB Javen Jacobs, jr., Saguaro

Jacobs, who has offers from Arizona State, Idaho and New Mexico, played primarily in the secondary for the Sabercats last season. This year, with the glut of talent in Saguaro’s secondary, he’s shifted his focus to receiver, where he has 19 catches for 284 yards. He’s made nine tackles at cornerback.

S Jax Stam, jr., Liberty

Lions coach Colin Thomas met Stam when he was a sixth-grader and knew he’d become a tremendous addition to the program once he arrived. Since arriving on the Peoria campus, he’s been a tackling machine, moving into the starting lineup as a freshman and becoming a second-team 6A all-conference selection for the state champions last year. This season, he’s second on the team with 63 tackles (most among 6A defensive backs) to go with four pass breakups and two forced fumbles.

Jax Stam / Elena Bernardo – EMB Photoshop

CB Jayden Harrington, sr., Verrado

Harrington committed to Division II Sioux Falls after a junior season in which he earned second-team all-Desert West 5A honors and helped the Vipers reach the state playoffs. A team captain who helps lead the team’s Bible study, Harrington has 25 tackles, eight pass breakups and two interceptions entering the final week of the season.

S Joel Diaz, sr., Arizona College Prep

Diaz earned first-team all-Metro East 3A recognition last fall after the Knights made the playoffs for the first time in the three years of the program’s existence. This season, he ranks fifth in the conference with 74 tackles entering the postseason, where Arizona College Prep is the No. 5 seed in the play-in round. He has four pass breakups, three forced fumbles and two interceptions. Diaz has received offers from 19 schools at the Division III and NAIA level, with Colorado School of Mines and St. Thomas his top choices.

CB Kam Gambrell, jr., Salpointe Catholic

Gambrell earned all-Kino 4A honorable mention last season and started this year with a bang, returning an interception 35 yards for a touchdown in a season-opening win over Casa Grande. The Lancers went into COVID-19 quarantine shortly after, and it wasn’t until last week against Mountain View that he returned, focusing on offense with eight catches for 93 yards and a touchdown. It comes as no surprise to coach Eric Rogers that Gambrell worked to get back on the field. “One day, Kam called me and said he wasn’t sure if he could make practice because he had no ride,” Rogers recalled. “Next thing you know, Kam shows up in an Uber. He just loves being on the field competing.” 

S Kentrell Williams, sr., Chandler

Wolves coach Rick Garretson has known Williams since Williams was in elementary school and knows the work the Eastern Washington commit has put into his craft. “Kentrell’s a grinder,” Garretson said. “To see how he’s grown in stature and speed and to have that success speaks volumes to what type of player he is.” The three-year starter in the secondary has a team-high three interceptions to go with 35 tackles in five games.

S Krew Jackson, sr., Queen Creek

Jackson received all-Central 6A honorable mention after making 72 tackles as a junior for the Bulldogs, then saw his recruiting blow up before COVID-19 shut things down. He had 15 offers from FBS schools before choosing Kansas State in late August. This season, he has 45 tackles and two pass breakups at free safety.

Krew Jackson / Paul Mason Photography

S Luke McCauslin, sr., Prescott

McCauslin has enjoyed a breakthrough season for the Badgers after earning all-Grand Canyon 4A honorable mention as a junior. Entering the state play-in round, he leads the conference with 86 tackles (eight for loss, 2½ sacks) and has five hurries.

S Rashon Adams, sr., Centennial

Adams is a two-way standout for the Coyotes who recently committed to FCS South Dakota State as a cornerback, but right now he’s a ball-hawking free safety who has 19 tackles, three interceptions and four pass breakups. He has 21 catches for 296 yards and four scores at receiver. 

S Shane Pitts, sr., Liberty

Pitts isn’t just a placekicker for the defending 6A state champion Lions but also a hard-hitting safety who ranks among team and conference leaders with 53 tackles (3½ for loss), three pass breakups and two interceptions. “His older brother also played for us, so I’ve known the family for a while,” Liberty coach Colin Thomas said. “And they’re all hard-nosed, punch-in-the-mouth types of players. He’s the heart and soul for us on defense.”

CB Steven Ortiz Jr., sr., Desert Edge

Ortiz, the No. 7 recruit in the state and No. 23 cornerback nationally according to 247Sports, committed to Minnesota in April after a junior season in which he earned first-team 4A all-conference honors. He made the varsity as a freshman and has started the past three years for the Scorpions. This season, he has 26 tackles (three for loss) and two interceptions. 

S Taron Thomas, sr., Saguaro

Thomas transferred from Desert Vista, where he was a first-team all-Central 6A selection as a junior, to join the Sabercats’ clowder of talented players in the secondary. After sitting out the first four weeks this season, he’s made an immediate impact with his new team, recording 12 tackles in his first game against Casteel and recovering a fumble in Saguaro’s Week 7 shutout of Horizon.

CB Travis Roberts, jr., Chandler

Roberts’ career follows that of many Chandler underclassmen — he wasn’t a starter as a sophomore, but he still saw plenty of action as the Wolves romped past most of their opponents, giving backups a chance to get their feet wet under Friday night lights. He had 28 tackles last season, and he’s stepped into a starting role this fall and shined with a team-high eight pass breakups to go with 26 tackles. “He has the athletic skills to play cornerback and is a physical kid for 5-9, 165,” coach Rick Garretson said. “Opponents get nothing over the top on him.”

CB Zachary Lewis, sr., Hamilton

When Lewis arrived at Hamilton three years ago from Pensacola, Fla., he focused primarily on catching passes (25 of them as a sophomore). As he’s grown in the program, he’s also become quite adept at breaking up passes. He earned second-team all-Premier 6A honors as a cornerback last year, and this season, the Nevada commit has 24 tackles and five pass breakups. “He has a very eccentric personality and has become an extremely vocal leader this year,” Huskies coach Mike Zdebski said. “He knows the secondary like the back of his hand.”

Zachary Lewis / Heather Hackett

S Zeke Branham, sr., Skyline

Branham was a first-team all-East Valley 6A selection last fall for the Coyotes. This season, he ranks among the conference leaders in tackles with 51 (sixth among defensive backs). He has offers from eight FBS programs, including Air Force, Fresno State, New Mexico and UNLV.

MORE FOOTBALL

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Meet the state’s best wide receivers

Meet the state’s best tight ends

Meet the state’s best offensive linemen

Meet the state’s best defensive linemen

Meet the state’s best linebackers

2020 high school football preview

6A football at midseason

5A football at midseason

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