Horns Open Title Defense Friday


If there is a single glaring difference between the 1999 edition of the Payson Longhorn football team and the one that last year finished as the undefeated Class 3A state champions, it is depth.

Through 13 victories of the 1998 season, the Horn coaching staff only occasionally asked players to line up on both offense and defense.

Athletes were assigned to one or the other, and there was little double duty. That's as rare to 3A football as was a University of Arizona scoring drive in the Wildcats' loss to Penn State Saturday morning.

The fact the Horn roster doesn't boast the depth it previously did became obvious as playing minutes snuck by in Friday afternoon's controlled scrimmage against Tuba City.

Several athletes-- including Dallin McLaws, Cade Bradley, Levi Armstrong, Ben Kreiger, Jon Pelto and Justin Kaufman -- saw duty on both "O" and "D".

McLaws doubled at strong safety and wingback, Bradley toiled at defensive end and tight end, Kreiger at offensive and defensive tackle, Pelto at cornerback and tailback, and Kaufman at fullback and nose guard.

Other players were also asked to play on both sides of the ball, which requires superior conditioning, personal resolve and mental toughness.

Also, the techniques on offense and defense are totally opposite, creating confusion in young players --especially sophomores and juniors.

One of the reasons the Longhorns were able to end Blue Ridge's 63-game winning streak with a 29-20 come-from-behind win over the Yellow Jackets last December was depth. In the final quarter of that state championship game, the Horns simply wore down the Yellow Jackets, who obviously tired because many players were going both ways, including quarterback Nate Jackson.

One former high school coach who witnessed the game said there was not much difference in quality between Blue Ridge's best 11 and Payson's best 11. The difference in the two teams was that Payson had more good athletes.

Who'll start?

The Horns' lineup for Friday's season opener in Payson against Safford is not set in stone, coaches say. Throughout the practice week the staff will be looking for ways to plug more players into starting positions.

Offensively, Pelto and sophomore Levi Armstrong are vying for the starting tailback position. Kaufman, a par- time starter last year, is penciled in as the fullback. At "X" or wide receiver, Scotty Garduno has been sidelined with a knee injury, but did play against Tuba City.

The junior -- who could draw double coverage once opposing coaches witness his ability -- is a legitimate talent who could break open a game with one of his circus-like catches. Dusty Brockett can also man the position. The other receivers include Bradley at "Y" or tight end and McLaws at the "Z" or wingback.

Barring an injury or creek-risin', senior Kyle Conway will be at the quarterback controls, engineering the Payson power option offense. The past two seasons Conway has had to languish in the wings while all-state and all-star Hunter Walden ran the show.

Walden has graduated, and Conway finally has the opportunity to pull the trigger in the Horn arsenal.

Line coach Jack Morris said he wasn't entirely satisfied with his crew's performance in the Tuba City scrimmage -- despite the fact Payson unofficially outscored TC 4-0 in touchdowns --and would be looking for much more intensity in the season opener.

"We have to beat them (Safford) off the ball," the coach said.

The offensive line starters could include Chase Waldron at center, Greg Davis and Ben Gartner at guards and Everett Lenhart and Kreiger at tackles.

Injuries -- including two knee surgeries to Kreiger and Davis' dislocated thumb -- have slowed the development of the line, but Morris anticipates his players will be primed for action by Friday evening.

On defense

Defensive coordinator Mike Wheelis will again use a 5-2 as his base defense and make adjustments as needed.

The defensive end starters will come from the crew of Sterling White, Doyle Van Horn, Levi Armstrong and Cade Bradley.

Last year, Bradley was an All-Central defensive performer and enters his senior year bigger, faster and more experienced. After having played on two state championship teams -- football and baseball -- the pressure of competition shouldn't faze the teen-ager.

The coaches can call upon Jason Estrella, Kreiger or Waldron as tackles. The nose guard slot could go to Kaufman or Waldron.

Senior Jimbo Armstrong, the team's leading tackler last year, returns to the Horn fold and has drawn all kinds of preseason plaudits as a player to watch. Cory McRae could line up alongside Armstrong. According to Wheelis, Reed Hatch and Bradley might also see duty as linebackers.

Pelto and Brockett are the front-runners for cornerback positions. McLaws is an experienced strong safety and Kacy Parker is a candidate to get the nod at free safety

Junior Brian Bowman is a do-everything D-back who could play any of the positions.

Game time Friday evening in Longhorn Stadium is 7 p.m.

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