Around the state, scribes, armchair quarterbacks, fans and football junkies are calling tonight’s Payson vs. St. Johns non-region clash a toss-up, mostly because both teams are relatively unknowns this season.
St. Johns has a great gridiron tradition under coach Mike Morgan, but last spring the Redskins graduated a ton of talent, losing the likes of Garrett Anderson, Steve Lindsey, Cade Ashton and Martene Fajardo.
Payson is coming off a highly forgettable 3-7 year, but new coach Byron Quinlan seems to have lit a fire under the Longhorns. He obviously has a good rapport with the senior crew, having coached them as freshmen.
Some onlookers are giving St. Johns the edge this evening because Morgan is a tested veteran coach and Quinlan is a rookie.
Others are picking Payson because the Longhorns are buoyed by probably the largest group of returning letter-winners, 22, in the state.
The Horns also picked up two transfers — quarterback Wade Hunsaker and fullback-linebacker Clint Harper — who could round into big-time players.
In last week’s preseason scrimmage vs. Camp Verde, Hunsaker showed a glimpse of becoming a good runner in the Longhorns’ power option attack.
He took one dive option keeper around end for a TD, bowling over two defenders.
Harper played well defensively at both linebacker and defensive end in the Horns’ 43 defensive alignment. He also will play in the offensive backfield.
Also giving the Horns hope is the return of senior Westin Gibson, who was sidelined last year with an injury. He oozes with potential and could see action as running back, wide receiver and defensive back.
The Horns also have some linemen with potential, including Sean Ford, Justin Moratti, Jake Gonzales and Keaton Duran. If the Horns are to emerge victorious tonight, it will be up to them to control the line of scrimmage. Play on the offensive line, however, often hinges on a fierce state of mind, and the game will go a long way in showing whether the linemen do indeed have the mental toughness to dominate on the LOS.
Quinlan has said that while the Horns are deep and talented in what he prefers to call “skill positions,” it is the linemen who must protect Hunsaker and open holes for tailback Payson Herring, Gibson and Harper.
Last week, the Redskins scrimmaged the Blue Ridge Yellow Jackets and were pretty well manhandled up front by the Yellow Jacket linemen.
But that was to be expected — the Jackets are state championship favorites and might field a team as good as any in the 4A ranks thanks to the transfer of former Winslow running back Chayse Russel and 2009 Small School Player of the Year Jordan Morgan.
Last year, St. Johns, a longtime Class 2A powerhouse, beat Payson 19-7 in what was then a battle of two defending state championship teams.
St. Johns was coming off an undefeated state championship season in 2008 and Payson had won the 3A state crown by going undefeated.
A lot of hoopla and hype surrounded that game, which is not occurring for tonight.
But that doesn’t mean the clash will be any less hard fought or hotly contested. After all — school pride and bragging rights are at stake.