Entering his first year as a high school head coach, Deer Valley’s Joe Kersting is happy to have a rare pair of juniors with talent and experience at quarterback and tailback.
Kersting, who made his name with three national titles at Glendale Community College, wishes there were more seniors on both sides of the ball to supplement Austin Hillman and Trae Armstrong.
The Skyhawk seniors have had a good offseason, Kersting said, there just aren’t a lot of them to lead a large junior class. This will hamper Deer Valley’s depth.
“For this level, what I’m hoping for is 22 different starters, so we don’t have to play guys both ways,” he said. “We won’t be in 2010. We’ll attempt to use two platoons, but there will be some guys that part of the time play both sides of the ball,”
Hillman and Armstrong will concentrate on generating big plays.
Hillman grabbed the starting job early in the 2009 season and showed promise despite making a raft of mistakes typical for a sophomore. He completed 56 percent of his passes, throwing for 1,833 yards, nine touchdowns and 18 interceptions.
“To have a young man like Austin Hillman that’s got a very strong arm that has a significant amount of playing time already, that’s a nice advantage,” Kersting said. “The disadvantage is he’s learning a new system and it’s going to take him a while to feel comfortable in it.”
The new offensive scheme retains some of its spread principles from the previous staff. But the Skyhawks will not use the formation as much, particularly in goal line situations, preferring to give multiple looks.
Each week’s game plan, Kersting said, will adjust the run/pass balance based on opponents’ defensive weaknesses.
In his sophomore season, Armstrong was a complementary back, offering a change of pace to then-senior Hayden McClellan. He racked up 535 rushing yards and four touchdowns and added 231 receiving yards.
Armstrong will step into a featured role this year. Though he doesn’t possess the physique of a between-the-tackles threat, Armstrong (5-9, 160) could be the state’s most improved back thanks to his elite speed. He claimed 5A-II titles in the 100- and 200-meter dashes last spring, and has the offensive staff devising creative ways to use him.
“Trae’s a great young man, more than a super talented runner and track man,” Kersting said. “We’ll figure out a few ways to get him the ball, I promise you that.”
With the graduation of Jacob Doyle and Jon Green, Armstrong is also the leading returning receiver. But the wideouts have shown well in summer, Kersting said.
Senior Juan Lopez has shined as a slot receiver, and fellow senior Andrew Moreno, a starting safety, will also see time at wideout. Junior Jacques Bruce figures into the receiver/defensive back mix as well, as does junior Kyle Vizthum, who did not play football last year.
“I think our receivers are just as good as last year’s, if not better,” Hillman said. “I think a couple of them should have played varsity (last year).”
The line received a blow before Kersting was named coach in January, when tackle Travis Seefeldt transferred to Liberty.
So the foundation of the front wall shifts to the interior, where the squatty but powerful duo of seniors Logan Felix and Adrian Fernandez will lead. Junior tackle Stephen Arnold has also stood out this summer, Kersting said.
Deer Valley’s defensive linemen have been impressive enough for the Skyhawks to consider changing their base defense from a three-man front to a four-man line. Senior defensive end Hunter Swerdfeger is the most experienced lineman on the squad.
Whether it lines up in a 4-3 or a 3-4, the team’s game plan will be similar. Stop the run first, and give opposing offenses as many looks as possible, using coverage change ups and blitzes.
“We’ll play a couple of different types of zone coverages. We’ll blitz and come after people and play some man coverage and zone blitz a little bit,” Kersting said. “We won’t be a team that’s in the same defense down after down.”
Senior Austin Finley, a starter in 2009, spearheads the linebacking corps. Juniors John Reed and Caleb Cattermole also look like starters.
Finley will be responsible for lining up everyone correctly. Other than that, he plans to lead by example.
“I’m not really an outspoken guy. I don’t like to talk much,” Finley said. “I mainly try to do what I do right to show everyone else what they should be doing.”
Kersting said the linebackers and the secondary strike a nice balance between strength and speed.
The sum of these parts, together with an acclaimed new coach and staff, is a mystery. And the Skyhawks play in a region without an established pecking order.
In 2009, Sandra Day O’Connor used a similar blend of returning skill position talent and coaching acumen of newcomer John Rodriguez to leap from 4A-I also ran to undefeated (7-0) Northwest Region champions.
The Eagles lose the passing combo that led to their surprise region crown. Boulder Creek and Mountain Ridge were playoff teams and have the most coming back.
But there’s not a huge gap for the Skyhawks to close.
“This is a region where I don’t think you’ve ever had anybody be in position to win a state championship,” “For the most part you’ve got teams that are trying to make a name and get to that upper echelon in 5A.”