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Top athletes catching on quick at wide receiver

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Posted: Thursday, October 22, 2009 2:35 pm

The state’s receiving leader board is littered with Mesa Desert Ridge players, no shock considering the Jaguars’ propensity to throw the football. But it’s the lack of true receivers that may be surprising.

The state’s receiving leader board is littered with Mesa Desert Ridge players, no shock considering the Jaguars’ propensity to throw the football.

But it’s the lack of true receivers that may be surprising.

According to coach Jeremy Hathcock, the top three wideouts on Desert Ridge are either converted basketball players — Sam Papa and Paris Clark — or a running back who has switched positions to better fit the pass-heavy scheme — Jordan Becerra.

Although his offense is one of the most blatant examples, Hathcock isn’t alone in his decision to use elite athletes at wide receiver.

As the passing game in Arizona continues to develop, coaches say the increase in receiving output has less to do with the improvement at the position and more to do with the reshuffling of athletes in an offense.

“Coaches are taking their best athletes and putting them in space,” Scottsdale Chaparral coach Charlie Ragle said. “The game of football boils down to one-on-one matchups. Put them out there, and let them win it.”

Ten years ago, most football coaches preferred putting their best athlete at tailback, guaranteeing touches throughout the contest.

For some, that thinking has changed.

Buoyed by the continued growth of the spread offense, coaches are finding new ways to get their best players involved.

Although the wide receivers won’t get as many touches as a running back, they are put in a better position to make big plays.

“If you have a 150-pound kid who is athletic and you force feed him and make him a running back, then he’s running in between the tackles,” Williams Field coach Steve Campbell said. “Instead, coaches are saying, ‘Let’s get him out to wide receiver.’ Get him in space and let him make plays.”

While throwing the ball has become more common at the high school level, many coaches do still prefer the ground attack.

It’s safer, shortens the game and leaves less to chance.

“There’s that old saying,” Hathcock said. “There are three things that can happen when you throw the ball, and two of them are bad: an interception or an incompletion.”

And the passing game is more complicated. There isn’t just one read, and there are several variables in play at the same time.

“When you’re running, you need a line that’s going to block,” Campbell said. “When you pass, you need a line that’s going to block, a quarterback that’s going to throw, a wide receiver that runs good routes, makes the catch and then can do something with it afterward.”

Apache Junction coach Rich Milligan runs an option attack where misdirection, blocking and toughness are the keys to success.

He said running a system where his best players are at wideout would be too risky.

“When kids throw the ball, you need that ability to be explosive,” Milligan said. “I can’t rely on those kids year in and year out.”

Hathcock sees it differently.

Like many coaches who change offensive styles, he saw it work in the college game and decided to experiment.

“I was enamored with the spread, but I’d be lying to you if I said I wasn’t worried,” Hathcock said.

But it didn’t take long for Hatchock to become a full-blown believer. In 2005, Desert Ridge lost to Mesa 59-6 in the season opener. One year later, with the spread fully implemented, the Jaguars still lost, but this time only 21-7.

“That got me believing that we did the right thing,” he said.

Now at Desert Ridge, the top playmakers are generally shuttled out to wide receiver.

They take their lumps in freshman and junior varsity ball, but have a good grasp of the system by the time they reach varsity.

There are, of course, still the traditional receivers.

Tempe Marcos de Niza’s Justin Rodriguez is one of the state’s best, and at 6-foot-3, is a natural wideout. But on that same team, sometimes lined up next to him, is Ramon Abreu, a 5-foot-10 dynamo who bounces between running back and slot receiver.

It’s a move Marcos coach Roy Lopez first did with Harrison Evens two seasons ago, and now with Abreu.

“If you can create a mismatch, you absolutely do it,” Lopez said.

The teams most synonymous with using their best athletes as wideouts have seen mixed results.

Desert Ridge has gotten progressively better under Hathcock, but the Jaguars have yet to advance past the second round of the postseason.

At Chandler Seton Cathiolic, wide receiver Trevor Gleisner has more receiving yards than the team’s cumulative rushing total, and the Sentinels average 31 points per game. But the team is just 2-5.

Cave Creek Cactus Shadows has been one of the biggest surprises in 4A-I this season, starting out 7-0, and its main offensive scheme is getting the ball quickly to wide receivers and letting them make plays.

Three years ago, Kyle Watkins caught 21 balls in the championship game and the Falcons won the 4A-II state title.

Then again, Cactus Shadows finished a combined 6-14 in 2007 and 2008 despite an identical offensive philosophy.

Some coaches believe this trend will continue, with Arizona teams throwing the ball more to their dangerous playmakers. Others believe it will cycle back to the running game.

But in the end, it might not matter.

Because it’s not where the athletes are on the field, but how many you have.

“I have yet to see a great jockey show up to the Kentucky Derby and win riding a donkey,” Ragle said. “The bottom line is, it’s about the thoroughbreds. The better players win. If you have the better guys, you’re going to win.”

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[Stats Courtesy of MaxPreps]