Payson High School football coach Byron Quinlan is facing the nightmarish and perplexing dilemma most all high school coaches face during homecoming week.
It involves assessing where individual players’ attentions are during the most celebratory and festive week of the season.
Coaches wonder, “Are my players focused on Friday night’s opponent and putting forth a winning effort, or are visions of pep assemblies, crowning of the royalty, parades, dances, float building and class competition dancing in their noggins?”
Often, coaches don’t like the answers to their queries and must quickly redirect their players’ focus toward emerging on Friday with a “W” rather than clutching the homecoming king crown.
Quinlan is convinced his players’ thoughts are on tonight’s game, “I really believe this group of seniors can handle all of the activities and still stay focused.
“These student-athletes are used to balancing a lot on their plates and are determined to make a run in the second half of the season.”
For fans, it shouldn’t take long after kickoff at 7 p.m. tonight vs. Sedona Red Rock to know if the evening is all about winning a football game or celebrating a homecoming.
Payson enters the game buoyed by the return of two senior starters — Tyler Savage and Cade DeSpain.
Savage has been out all season with a broken ankle and DeSpain has been sidelined a couple of games with a deep thigh bruise.
Savage, a returning starter from last season, anchors the offensive line from his guard position and is a linebacker on defense.
DeSpain rotates at tailback with Aaron Barnes and plays linebacker in the Horns’ 3-4 and 4-3 defenses.
The return of the two excites Quinlan, who says, “We should be very close to being full strength for the first time this year.
“It’s been a tough first half of the season for us with all our injuries.”
With Savage and DeSpain back in the lineup, the Horns might be able to crank up a ground-oriented offense that on Sept. 23 churned out more than 300 yards in a 30-12 loss to defending state champion Show Low.
According to the Web site MaxPreps, the Horns are averaging 272 yards on the ground, but the team averages just 53.2 yards through the airways.
Those stats won’t confuse Quinlan with Air Coryell and his record-setting offense that paced the NFL in passing yardage six straight years.
Quinlan is not averse to passing; in fact he’d like to crank up his aerial game. But at this point, the running game, led by Chance Randall, Clint Harper, DeSpain and Barnes, is performing like a finely tuned V-8 and the passing attack is misfiring like a poorly tuned straight-six.
In fact, quarterbacks Gunner Goodman and Levi Wilkins have combined for six interceptions lending credence to former Texas coach Darrell Royal’s observation in 1964, “There are three things that can happen when you throw the football and two of them are bad.”
Nonetheless, you can bet the family farm Quinlan will try to crank up the aerial game in an attempt to give the Horns a more balanced offensive attack.
Which means the offensive line led by Ty Davis, Anselmo Vazquez and Savage must pass protect on roll outs and five-step drops.
That group up front, which some line coaches glowingly call their “buffalos” become especially important tonight because Sedona is expected to put eight defenders on the line of scrimmage to try and curtail Payson’s power running game.
On D vs. Sedona
The Horns defense, led by Clint Harper, Garrett Geske and Randall, has played well this season and appears to have the size, strength and skill to thwart Sedona’s double wing offense.
Scorpion quarterback Jack Johnson has good size, 6 feet, 2 inches, 200 pounds, a strong arm and “has thrown the ball well especially when (opponents) focus on the backfield motion,” said Quinlan.
Johnson was injured in last week’s 48-0 loss to Camp Verde, but Quinlan expects him to return to the lineup this evening.
The Scorpions have a new coach in Rick Walsworth who is trying to build a football program in a school that has had only one two-game winning streak since 2005.
The most recent occurred this season when the Scorpions beat Tuba City, 53-20 and Greyhills Academy, 40-8.
The Horns enter tonight’s game with a 2-3 record and needing a big-time win to stay in the chase for top-16 power points and the resulting seed into the postseason.
Kickoff is at 7 p.m.