Derrick Nsubuga knows a good defensive lineman when he sees one.
The Chaparral High School product played the position at Southern Illinois University — Carbondale, Arizona State and Lindenwood University before returning as a coach at his alma mater.
When he first saw Anthony Lucas, Nsubuga recognized his athleticism. His size and strength stood out. When Nsubuga pulled the freshman aside and asked him to run, he was impressed by his speed and fluid movement.
It took little time for Nsubuga to realize that he was coaching a future top college prospect.
“I was like ‘This kid’s gonna be a superstar,’” Nsubuga said. “Ever since then, he’s been getting better and better every year.”
Nsubuga’s prediction was accurate. Lucas is now the top player from Arizona in the 2022 recruiting class and a four-star recruit. Receiving 26 offers to play college football, Lucas in August announced his top-seven schools: Alabama, Miami (FL), Notre Dame, Oregon, Texas A&M, Southern California and Louisiana State.
Lucas’ path to becoming one of the best defensive high school players in the country has been unconventional, in that he took the gridiron for the first time during his freshman year at Chaparral. However, it didn't take long for his skill to stand out. During his sophomore season, Lucas finished with 29 tackles and second on the team in tackles-for-loss (10) and sacks (six).
Since then, the six-foot-five, 280-pound defensive lineman has grown into a defensive stalwart for the defending Division 6A state champions.
“Where he’s at is what I saw as the possibility for him,” Chaparral head coach Brent Barnes said. “It’s not shocking, but it’s not easy to get where he’s at. I’m not gonna say I’m surprised by any means, but to be considered where he’s at and what he’s done, it’s rare. It’s been certainly an awesome thing to see happen.”
When Lucas arrived on the Firebirds’ campus as a freshman, he expected to play sports, but not football. Ready to contribute his talents on the baseball field and basketball court, he was approached by a parent who asked if he was trying out for the football team.
Standing at six-foot-two and 230 pounds, Lucas said no. However, she told him to come out to practice and meet with the coaches. He soon became a three-sport athlete.
According to Barnes, he felt Lucas was ready to make an impact when he arrived with the Firebirds. He remembers telling him that he couldn’t tell what his future would look like in basketball or baseball, but that he had a bright one in football if he pursued it.
And he did.
Lucas still played his original two sports at Chaparral — he participated in baseball freshman and sophomore year and Varsity basketball sophomore and junior year — but will not in 2021 since he plans to graduate early.
Yet they helped his performance on the gridiron. Lucas credited baseball with improving his speed, reaction and hand-eye coordination and basketball with bettering his endurance and footwork.
“I’d probably say that it takes countless hours and days of making sure your body’s in the top physical shape it can be for you to perform the best you can at all times,” Lucas said.
At the end of his freshman season, Lucas was elevated to the Varsity roster after showcasing promise on the field. Yet his football journey was just beginning, as Barnes said he needed to improve his understanding of the game to become a more dominant player.
Lucas then worked hard in the offseason to get ready for the pace of Varsity football. According to Nsubuga, Lucas’ work ethic in the weight room, at practice and during conditioning set him apart — a quality that he believes will ultimately help Lucas reach the National Football League.
In the 2019 season opener against Hamilton, Lucas debuted his sophomore year with just two tackles. He then went on a tear, racking up nine tackles, four tackles-for-loss and three sacks in the Firebirds’ next three games.
One of those matchups was a 38-24 loss to Saguaro High School, in which Lucas finished with three tackles and a tackle-for-loss. However, his stat line was not the storyline of his performance.
During a play, he swallowed the black crumbs of the turf and came to the sideline choking on the beads. Attempting to wash the pellets out of his mouth and throat, Lucas remembers thinking “it’s nothing” and that he still had a job to finish. He returned to the game without missing a snap.
“At that moment, I was like, “Okay, yeah, he’s talented,’” Nsubuga said. “I was like, ‘This kid is gonna fight. He’s gonna give us everything he has and he’s a competitor.’”
Added Lucas: “It’s gonna take a lot more than some turf to get me off the field.”
His sophomore season not only represented his improvement in fundamentals such as his first step and getting out of a stance. It was when opportunities to play college football started rolling in.
At this time, Lucas shifted his main athletic focus to football.
“That’s when it kind of probably clicked for him,” Barnes said. “He started to see the future. He still loves playing the game of basketball. He still loves those other things. But again, (he) just knew where his future lies.”
Lucas’ junior season saw him notch 46 tackles, 15.5 tackles-for-loss and seven sacks. Lucas also caught one pass for nine yards at tight end — a position he hopes to play in college.
In making his Division I decision, Lucas will consider how a team uses him, academics and their performance during the 2021 college football season. Each of his top seven programs has unique attributes, according to the rising senior.
It is uncertain the exact date that his decision will come, but if one thing is certain, he still has things he wants to achieve in a Firebirds jersey.
Lucas’ fondest memory of high school football so far is the final seconds of Chaparral's 24-14 win over Highland in the 2020 Division 6A State Championship Game. After missing its first three games due to COVID-19, the Firebirds defied the odds and won a title.
“No matter where we start, it’s about the finish,” Lucas said.
In 2021, Lucas wants that feeling again. He wants to go back-to-back. And Nsubuga can’t wait to see his star pupil chase that aspiration before heading off to the next level.
“I know this year, it’s gonna be crazy how much better he is,” he said. “He’s gonna dominate every single football game and I’m really excited for that.”