Washington’s top high school football players: Meet the state’s must-see quarterbacks in fall 2021

By Josh Horton, Todd Milles and Andy Buhler

Over the next few weeks, SBLive will take a position-by-position look at some of the top high school football players across the state of Washington.

First up, quarterbacks.

Based on a knowledge base bolstered by extensive conversations with coaches, talent evaluators and other media, SBLive took a comprehensive look at which signal callers rise above the pack, across each classification. Players are only eligible for one position list, which means the many athletes who are standouts at multiple positions will be included in the position group they either excel more at, prefer or project to play at the next level.

Selections are listed in alphabetical order.

Here are Washington’s top arms:

CLASS 4A QUARTERBACKS TO WATCH

(Photo by Scott Butner)

Luke Abshire, Central Valley, 6-2, 180, senior

In terms of arm strength and sending missiles through tight spaces, few can rival this second-year starter for the Bears. Says coach Ryan Butner: ‘His drive to want to be excellent is contagious throughout the program. He is a special player that we don’t see in our league very often.”

Parker Barrysmith, Eastlake, 5-10, 165, senior

After stepping into the starting role for the first time, this signal caller has been a steady presence for the Wolves this fall. “Parker commands our offense in both the run and pass game, and he continues to get better each week,” coach Kyle Snell said. “Parker can make every throw, and we trust his decision making in every facet of our offense.”

Micah Balzarini, Puyallup, 6-3, 190, junior

Yes, he has made some untimely mistakes as the first-year starter replacing Luke Holcomb. But boy, the arm talent is there – as put on display often in the summer circuit. “Micah brings a real calming presence to our team,” says coach Brian Grout. “It doesn’t really matter what’s going on around him, he’s always steadfast in the manner he goes about his business.”


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Bo Carlson, Sumner, 6-0, 195, senior

Last spring, he was more of a physical runner as a first-year starter. But after a strong offseason of pass-game improvement (mainly footwork), now Carlson is a true dual threat, leading the Spartans as a playmaker – and to 4A state-contending status.

Skyler Cassel, West Valley of Yakima, 6-0, 190, junior

The Rams like to air it out, and have the right guy under center to carry it out. Cassel turned heads with an impressive sophomore campaign with 1,630 yards and 21 touchdowns, good for first-team all-league honors in the Columbia Basin Big 9 in the spring.

Gabe Downing, Olympia, 6-0, 190, junior

In addition to throwing for 1,424 yards and 16 touchdowns in his first six games this season, Downing is unlocking his ability to scramble more this season, according to coach Nick Mullen. “What sets Gabe apart is the ability to process information quickly,” Mullen said. Also a standout baseball player.

Gavin Garcia, Tahoma, 6-1, 195, senior

Started at defensive back as a sophomore and junior before taking the reins at quarterback for the Bears. And this fall, he has been the best quarterback in the 4A NPSL as a physical runner and an effective intermediate passer. Also a really good basketball player.

Cameron Kitchens, Richland, 6-2, 180, senior

Inserting Kitchens into the starting lineup midway through last spring ended up paying immediate dividends. Kitchens reminds coach Mike Niedhold of Brian Edwards, a dual-threat Richland standout in the 1990s. “Cameron has the same type of timing, knowing when to pull it and get out of town when a play breaks down and when to keep it an extra second,” Niedhold said.

River Lien, Glacier Peak, 6-0, 195, junior

The Grizzlies have their offensive backfield set for the next two seasons, led by this first-year starter, who got off to a sizzling start this fall (994 yards, 13 TDs). Beat out a senior for the starting job in the summer after finishing second behind Lincoln’s Gabarri Johnson in the Northwest 9 Showcase in Yakima.

Isaac Looker, Rogers of Puyallup, 6-3, 210, senior

Even though his next-level position is likely at tight end, the son of former NFL wide receiver (and Rams coach) Dane Looker has always wanted to play under center at Rogers – and has performed admirably given he plays in arguably the toughest 4A league in the state (4A SPSL). Done very well at summer passing competitions, too.

Kennedy McGill, North Creek, 6-0, 190, senior

North Creek is on a program upswing – and McGill is a big reason why. He’s looked the part of the most dynamic quarterback in the vaunted 4A KingCo, leading the Jaguars in total offense (1,570 yards, 18 TDs) well into the fall season. He is a playmaker who just has a will to win – and not be denied.

Ryan McKenna, Gonzaga Prep, 6-0, 175, senior

Give him a glimpse of daylight, and he’s gone. The maestro of Gonzaga Prep’s vaunted triple-option offense, McKenna is a legacy player, starting out as a Bullpups ball boy while learning the offense under his father/coach Dave McKenna. The three-year starter is the overwhelming favorite to be a repeat 4A Greater Spokane League MVP selection.

Henry Mercado, Kamiakin, 5-10, 165, senior

Give the third-year starter his flowers! Mercado has played his best football as a senior, leading the team to big wins over Chiawana, Richland and rival Kennewick. Coach Scott Biglin has proclaimed him the best quarterback in the Mid-Columbia Conference, and teammate EJ Hawkins summed him up perfectly. “His composure is perfect,” Hawkins said.

Grayson Murren, Lake Stevens, 6-5, 180, senior

He’s made the most of a minimalist situation for the Vikings. Sitting behind ex-4A Wesco MVP Tanner Jellison for two years, Murren showed his vast array of skill in the summer at the Lakewood Passing Tournament – and that has continued this fall by announcing himself as a true dual threat that should be playing on Saturdays in the future.

Logan Rodriguez, Sunnyside, 6-1, 170, senior

Sunnyside has a devastating rushing attack, led by workhorse running back Myles Newhouse. But Rodriguez’s ability to air the ball out has allowed the Grizzlies’ multi-faceted offense to flourish this season. Rodriguez’s hot start includes 1,391 yards passing through six games, with a five-touchdown performance over West Valley of Yakima. 

Jake Schakel, Emerald Ridge, 6-1, 190, sophomore

He is the next big arm to flourish in quarterback-historic Puyallup. Taking over midway through the spring season as a ninth grader, Schakel and UW commit Denzel Boston at wide receiver has turned this Jaguars’ offense into a handful to defend. He’s passed for 1,715 yards and 20 touchdowns (at a 72.5-percent clip) in his first seven games.

Tristan Warner, Bellarmine Prep, 6-1, 185, senior

How’s this for versatility? The multi-year starting signal caller has pitched in at running back due to injuries this season – and showed he could be a workhorse in that role, too, for the playoff-bound Lions, evidenced by a 141-yard performance with two touchdowns in a signature Week 5 win against Emerald Ridge. 

Joshua Wood, Graham-Kapowsin, 6-3, 185, senior

What more can you say about this Eastern Washington University commit? The top in-state quarterback in the 2022 class, Wood’s climb to stardom has been astounding. He runs with speed, passes with authority – and is an unflappable leader (some of that is his point-guard background). How he terrorizes a defense will leave your jaw dropping.

JP Zamora, Chiawana, 6-4, 185, senior

The lethal four-year starter, who has long been the most decorated quarterback in the Mid-Columbia Conference (and recently committed as a preferred walk-on to UCLA), won’t lead the Riverhawks to their fourth consecutive MCC title, but is still producing dynamic highlights in his final season. 

CLASS 3A QUARTERBACKS TO WATCH

(Photo by Vince Miller)

Payton Accetturo, Auburn Riverside, 6-2, 235, senior

The Ravens captured their first 3A NPSL crown, in large in part due to Accetturo, a dual-sport athlete who has developed quickly as a pocket passer – and big-moment playmaker – under second-year coach Greg Herd.

Nate Beck, Kentlake, 5-11, 170, senior

He might not be the biggest guy, but watch him throw a football. He can air-mail one 70 yards, and was one of the top performers at the Northwest 9 Showcase last summer in Yakima. The left-handler recently became the school’s all-time leading passer, and is the 3A NPSL’s top signal caller.

Jake Bice, Peninsula, 6-2, 200, senior

Really showed off his talent at the FSP Showcase in the fall of 2020, and has led the Seahawks to an undefeated run in the 3A South Sound Conference (after an opening-week loss to Bellevue). Second-year starter was a 4A SPSL second-team selection during the COVID-restructured spring season.

Kayde Bodine, Auburn Mountainview, 6-1, 170, junior

A three-year starter under center, Bodine has shown to be more agile on his feet this fall – and has always been a good decision-maker in Jared Gervais’ offense. Lions won the 3A NPSL title last spring – and his development and experience are key reasons behind that.

Justin Brennan, Lakes, 6-0, 195, senior

He’s back! After leading the Lancers to a third-place showing in the tough 3A PCL, Brennan was recently granted a fifth-year eligibility waiver by the WIAA – and his return as now a third-year starter has sparked Lakes’ offense. Can really threat the needle with tight spirals, and is also an underrated scrambler.

Carson Christensen, Shorecrest, 6-0, 165, senior

You don’t want this guy picking on you – through the air and on the ground. The dual threat has nearly 2,000 yards of total offense already, and has the Scotties’ offense rolling along in the 3A Wesco.

Kellen Flanigan, Mount Spokane, 6-2, 190, senior

Some guys just like the deep ball – and Flanagan really excels at delivering it with depth and accuracy. The Mead transfer has really given the Wildcats permission to open up the offense – and consider themselves a serious 3A state threat.

Dempsy James, Spanaway Lake, 6-1, 185, senior

Coach Cameron Robak has called him one of the most accurate passers he has seen come through the program, but the reigning 3A PCL offensive most valuable player loves to make defenders miss with his feet, and produce big plays out of backfield losses. A treat to watch.

Gabarri Johnson, Lincoln of Tacoma, 6-0, 200, junior

There’s a reason he had a laundry list of Pac-12 offers before his first start as a sophomore. Johnson, who recruiting sites peg as a four-star and the state’s top quarterback prospect, showed big-play flashes leading a young Abes team in the spring, and has put up staggering numbers, rising to become the state’s best must-see prospect in the state. 

Brady McKelheer, Eastside Catholic, 6-0, 160, junior

The first-year starter has slid in under center nicely for an offense that is outgrowing an era when it lined up more than a handful of high-major college talents each year. McKelheer is renowned for his ball placement and it was on full display at Northwest 9 as the junior won the accuracy portion of the camp.

Trent Nobach, Arlington, 6-2, 185, senior

Making up for lost time after suffering a season-ending broken collarbone injury last year, Nobach has thrown for 1,804 yards and 23 touchdowns for the Eagles through seven games. “We’ve had a lot of all-league quarterbacks in terms of arm talent,” Eagles coach Greg Dailer said. “He can make all the throws … he’s the most accurate we’ve had.”

Paxton Page, Ferris, 6-2, 190, senior

Sort of gets lost among the other top Greater Spokane League signal callers, but this tall yet mobile transfer from Oregon City clicked in the Saxons’ offense immediately. This year, he’s further proven his ability to extend plays outside the pocket under first-year coach Malik Roberson. 

Braeden Smith, Seattle Prep, 6-0, 170, senior

He might be the best two-sport athlete in the state of Washington. He certainly is in the Metro League as a star in basketball, too. And in football, he brings running back-like skill and production to the quarterback position. “Braeden is one of the most dynamic and explosive athletes I have coached or watched compete in 23 years of high school football,” coach Aaron Maul said. 

Blake Springer, Monroe, 6-2, 205, sophomore

Has shared the job with senior Evan Leggett this fall, Springer has the higher upside in Monroe’s pass-happy system – and is part of a talented class-of-2024 group of signal callers in Washington. Has a frame to withstand big hits, and can really spin passes into tight areas.

CLASS 2A QUARTERBACKS TO WATCH

(Photo by Vince Miller)

Colton Bower, North Kitsap, 6-1, 185, senior

What does it say that Bower will leave the school as the all-time leader in passing yards at quarterback and interceptions at defensive back? He knows how to be an air-taking playmaker. The WSU baseball commit has taken off in the Vikings’ spread offense as a dual threat – and is a leading candidate for 2A state player of the year.

Kaiden Rivera, Prosser, 6-2, 185, senior

In the Mustangs’ storied passing attack, the strong-armed Rivera fits under center like a glove. A three-year starter, Rivera’s career numbers could land him in the school history books. As a senior, he will likely be a 2,000-yard passer – even with virtually a new cast of pass catchers.

Leyton Smithson, Squalicum, 6-1, 190, senior

One thing is for certain – if you lined Smithson up next to every other in-state quarterback for a 100-yard dash, he’d be the favorite to win. After he transferred back from Idaho where he was a running back, Smithson volunteered to play under center for the Storm as a senior – and right next to WSU-bound tailback Ben Schlenbaker.

Justice Taylor, Lakewood, 6-1, 205, senior

The younger brother of former Lakewood star Jared Taylor possesses the same dual-threat abilities – and is one tough customer. And despite the Cougars having a down year, Taylor has carried the offense with nearly 1,400 yards of total offense and 16 touchdowns. 

Zach Watson, Burlington-Edison, 5-11, 185, senior

With the Tigers unexpectedly in the Northwest District title hunt, the two-way standout is on the short list of Northwest Conference MVP candidates. The dual threat has 1,500 yards of total offense and 15 touchdowns, and is both slippery and strong enough to break out of tackles.

CLASS 1A QUARTERBACKS TO WATCH

(Photo by Andy Buhler)

Darren Cepeda, La Center, 6-0, 180, senior

A native of Guam, Cepeda is a dynamic athlete and a genuine dual threat. He presents a scary threat for defenses as a proven runner, accruing more than 1,500 total yards and 17 touchdowns through five games.

Will Colwell, Lynden Christian, 6-4, 215, senior

Sitting behind Logan Dykstra gave this teenager a front-row seat on how to play the position. And the first-year starter has masterfully run the Lyncs’ run-pass option stuff. He is a better runner than given credit for – and can really pass it downfield. Quiet leader has respect of his teammates.

Claysen Delp, Zillah, 6-1, 190, senior

When defensive-minded second-year coach Ryan Watson took over Zillah’s offensive play-calling, he came to a realization. “First thing I told myself is ‘I’ve got to get out of Clay’s way,’” Watson said of Delp, a four-year starter and all-state candidate in both football and basketball. His senior season was cut short with a broken collarbone injury.

Kole Hunsaker, Lakeside of Nine Mile Falls, 6-2, 165, junior

Arguably the highest-upside quarterback at this level, Hunsaker, who has thrown for 1,246 yards and 14 touchdowns in his first seven games this season, has positioned the Rams as a state contender. “He has shown that he has the ability to take over a game both by throwing and running the ball,” coach Devin Bauer said.

Silas Ng, Riverside, 6-0, 175, senior

It makes perfect sense that Ng is a scratch golfer. Under center, the three-year starter is a talented, cerebral dual-threat dynamo, and the sparkplug for the reigning 1A Northeast champions.

Josh Perez, Toppenish, 5-11, 175, junior

He might even consider himself more of a basketball player – but don’t overlook the staggering numbers he’s put up as a multi-year starter – 1,652 passing yards and 27 touchdowns. Eight of those scores came in a Week 3 win over Wahluke, without an interception. 

Boen Phelps, Freeman, 6-3, 185, junior

Another in the quarterback-driven 1A Northwest League, this tall dual-threat quarterback is the engine for the Scotties, including a six-touchdown performance in Week 6 against Newport. Also a three-sport standout.

Reed Stamps, Chelan, 6-6, 220, senior

One of the tallest quarterbacks in the state, Stamps, a three-sport athlete, has delivered in his third year as a starter for the Goats, including a six-touchdown outing in an hollywood-esque comeback win over Cascade of Leavenworth in Week 6. 

Kevin Wulff, Eatonville, 6-1, 215, senior

Got a few games under his belt last spring when UW-bound Caden Jumper missed action. And he has taken his game to another level as the undisputed starter in the Cruisers’ high-tempo offense (nearly 1,800 yards of total offense, 19 TDs).

CLASS 2B QUARTERBACKS TO WATCH

Jackson Esary, Kalama, 6-2, 205, senior

The big-bodied signal caller is the best 2B player in the state – and one of the most impactful players in Washington, regardless of school size. In three years as the Chinooks’ starting signal caller, he’s been a two-way dynamo throwing downfield and using his feet to keep plays alive.

Caleb Sherfey, Tri-Cities Prep, 6-2, 170, sophomore

Wasn’t supposed to be a quarterback until injuries depleted the roster – and Sherfey had no choice but to move under center as arguably the team’s best athlete. He’s posted impressive numbers, took, at nearly 370.0 yards per game.

CLASS 1B QUARTERBACKS TO WATCH

(Photo by Tommy Wolf)

Keegan Bishop, Liberty Christian, 5-10, 155, junior

He may be slinging it in the 8-man game, but Bishop has turned heads competing next to the many bigger-school quarterbacks in the Tri-Cities. Manning the controls of Liberty Christian’s prolific “Air Raid” offense, he set the bar high in the first game of the season, breaking the 8-man state record for passing yards in a single game with 684. Will miss the rest of 2021 with a shoulder injury.

(Featured photo by Vince Miller)

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