New Football Coach Starts With Few Veteran Players

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The Payson High School football team will sport an entirely different look when the 2000 season kicks off Sept. 1 in Safford.

With a new head coach, many young faces in the lineup and revamped all-purple uniforms and helmets, longtime Horns fans might have a tough time recognizing their home team.

At the helm of the Longhorn program is rookie head coach Mike Wheelis who was appointed last spring after Jim Beall resigned. Wheelis might be new to the position, but he's no stranger to the PHS program, having served in various capacities including defensive coordinator the past nine seasons.

Joining the coach for his inaugural season is a team of mostly untested athletes players who saw little if any varsity playing time last year.

Among the veteran players is running back/linebacker Levi Armstrong. The youngster proved a tough nut to crack last year when the going got tough in late season lopsided loses to Show Low and Blue Ridge.

After the 49-7 rear-end kicking administered by BR, PHS assailant coach Jack Morris praised Armstrong's courageous efforts.

"He was covered with sweat, dirt and blood (from a cut on his forearm), but he never quit ... he played hard the whole game," Morris said.

Over veterans returning to the lineup include offensive lineman Jason Estrella, wide receiver/defensive back Dusty Brockett, tight end/defensive back Caleb Miller and defensive end Sterling White.

Local fans probably remember Brockett best for his last-second heroics that helped the Longhorns beat Snowflake for the first time in the 35-year history of the PHS football program.

His nifty fourth-down TD reception from quarterback Kyle Conway with 3.4 seconds remaining in the game lifted Payson to a nail-biting 26-23 victory.

The rest of the roster

Currently, the varsity and jayvee roster sports 47 players who are all eagerly vying for starting honors, Wheelis said.

Two of the strongest candidates to replace Conway who graduated last spring are Ky Bradley and Waylon Pettet. Each brings his own strengths to the signal caller position which will make it tough for coaches to decide who will be the starting quarterback.

Set to man the backfield slots are O.J. Siebert, Steve Williamson, Reid Hatch, Alex Cortez and Armstrong.

Among the receiving crew, Brockett and varsity letter winner Scotty Garduno return to lead a talented group of athletes which also includes R.C. LaHaye and Shaun Hounshell.

At tight end, Greenway High transfer Mike Doss and Miller are candidates for starting honors.

Battling for starting offensive line positions are Sean Pickel, Levi Amon, Matt Johnson, Rocky Beery, Seth Derwort, Jeremy Greenberg and Sterling White.

Defensive line candidates include Doss, Austin Wilbanks, Rob Ochoa and White.

Last season, the Horn linebacking crew led by coaches association all-star Jimbo Armstrong was one of the strengths of the team.

But Armstrong graduated and is now at Arizona Western College. His absence leaves the Horn LB cupboard emptier than Old Mother Hubbard's.

Wheelis said he's hoping that at least three athletes from the crew of Cory McRae, Hatch, Pickle and Williamson step up to fill the vacated backer positions.

With Brockett and Miller returning to the defensive backfield, the Horns will have a small nucleus of seasoned players to build around.

Garduno joins the crew as a talented defender who has the speed, agility and tenacity to play both corner and safety. Other players coaches are looking at for possible play in the backfield include Shawn Hounshell, Bradley and Pettet.

What's up their sleeve

During preseason training sessions, which began Aug. 7 with much dreaded two-a-days, the coaching staff has focused on mastering fundamentals of the game, conditioning and weight training.

Last Tuesday, the coaches began installing the offense and defense.

On O, fans can expect the Horns to engineer the power-option offense that Payson has run since Beall arrived on the Rim country gridiron scene in 1995.

To run the offense successfully, a team must have a multi-talented quarterback who can run, throw and execute the option.

One prototype power-option prep quarterback was former Horn Hunter Walden who led the team to an undefeated season and the state championship in 1998.

A successful power-option team also typically features a bruising fullback who thrives on blocking and a speedy tailback.

Offensive linemen must excel at one-on-one scoop blocks in which they "scoop" the defender off the line of scrimmage.

Defensively, the Horns will retain the traditional 5-2 look that was highly popular in the 1950s thanks to its success at the University of Oklahoma.

In later years, the 52 fell out of favor with coaches who opted for even front looks.

In the '80s, the 52 regained its popularity and is now the base "D" at many high schools and colleges.

Recently, coaches have taken the 52 and added a variety of gimmicks, line slants, stunts, games, zones and blitzes.

Wheelis says he'll use all options he can install and also expects this year's edition of the Longhorns to be more penetrating than in previous years.

"We won't be back on our heels," he said.

On the coaching slate with Wheelis this season will be Brett Morse, Jack Morris and Jason Sweeny. All three coached last year with Beall.

The freshman team, which numbers 40, is being coached by Pete Greer and David Daniels.

Home opener

The Horns are slated to make their home debut Sept. 15 against the powerful St. Johns Redskins, which early last season put a big 40-8 thumping on the Rim home boys.

In most football circles, the match could be considered a grudge match with a bit of revenge at stake. But, because the Payson roster is so young and inexperienced, not many of the players were around last year to suffer through the humbling loss.

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