Scottsdale Independent

2017 high school football preview: Arcadia Titans

An Arcadia quarterback scans the field while the defense looms during an Aug. 8 practice. (Independent Newsmedia/Josh Martinez)

When the Arcadia High School football team takes the field for the first time in 2017, it will look completely different from 2016.

With first-year Head Coach Tony Stillings implementing a new style of offense, the Titans will make the shift from a run-heavy team to a fast-paced spread offense.

Last year, Arcadia’s offense relied heavily on running back Ryan Alexandre, who posted 1,689 rushing yards and 18 rushing touchdowns.

Alexandre’s rushing numbers alone were more than Arcadia’s entire passing game combined last year.

With such a big shift from a year ago, Coach Stillings said his team is making great strides in the new offensive system.

“It was something that was met with a little hesitation at first, just because it was new, like anything new,” he said in an Aug. 8 interview. “Once they saw how much fun the offense could be, they really embraced it.”

Receiver Samaury Alexander races past a defender after a catch during an Aug. 8 practice. (Independent Newsmedia/Josh Martinez)

Coach Stillings said regardless of the style of offense, replacing someone like Alexandre is a challenge.

However, he said he believes his team has weapons this year that make his offense work well.

“We have a good set of receivers, so that really helps,” he said. “Our O-line has been doing a good job protecting as well.”

As a whole, Coach Stillings said he’s been impressed the team’s progression throughout the offseason.

He said he’s tried to keep the installation as simple as he can to help maximize the team’s learning.

At camp, Coach Stillings said he found himself getting excited and trying to install more than the team was ready for so he had to pull himself back a bit.

The Titans finished 2–8 last year, but Coach Stillings said he believes his team can return to prominence quickly.

“I definitely think we can get to the playoffs and do some stuff,” he said. “Like any team at this level, it’s a depth thing. Keep the key people healthy and we’ll go pretty far.”

In order to reach the playoffs, the Titans will need to navigate a 2017 schedule that features five 2016 playoff teams including state champion Williams Field High School in the season-opener Friday, Aug. 18.

Other 2016 playoff teams include Chaparral, Verrado, Liberty and Kellis High Schools.

Arcadia also faces Notre Dame Preparatory, which finished atop the region last year but did not compete in the playoffs because of a probation.

Northeast Valley Region play begins Thursday, Aug. 28 against Paradise Valley.

Despite having his eyes on the 5A state playoffs, Coach Stillings said in order to consider this season a success, he hopes his team not only buy-in this year, but continue in an upward trajectory for years to come.

“I think if we come out of this season and the kids have bought into this system and know what we expect and are buying into the future, I think that’s pretty successful,” he said.

Offense

At the center of Coach Stillings’ new spread offense is returning senior quarterback Luke Ashworth, who tossed for 1,250 yards and 14 touchdowns last season.

An Arcadia receiver beats the defense and makes a catch in the endzone during an Aug. 8 practice. (Independent Newsmedia/Josh Martinez)

Coach Stillings said Ashworth was a little hesitant with the pass-heavy offense because it was out of his comfort level.

Once he adjusted, Coach Stillings said Ashworth has thrived in the system and his abilities and decision making will give Arcadia an advantage on the field.

“He can put the ball in places that few guys at this level can,” he said. “I think this year he’s going to surprise a lot of people because this offense will show what he can really do.”

Both sophomore Samaury Alexander and senior Josh Peterson have emerged as top receiving targets for Ashworth, Coach Stillings said.

Senior Marq Wilkerson is also in the mix as a receiver but more as a receiver-running back hybrid who can be used in a plethora of situations.

Last year, Reed Richardson led a senior-heavy group of five receivers who had more than 100 receiving yards last year. The lone returner on that list is Wilkerson.

Richardson also led the team in receiving touchdowns in 2016.

As for running back, no one player has stood out in that position but sophomore Paxton Earl, junior Mauricio Vasquez and sophomore Kadin Beler have all seen time at the position.

Beler is also the team’s backup quarterback and Coach Stillings sees him as the quarterback of the future.

Behind Alexandre, no other player had more than 20 rushing yards as Josh Villalpando had the second-most rushing yards with 18.

On the offensive line, seniors TJ Feulner, Sam Ellington and Logan Tomasek are frontrunners for the position. As for the rest of the line, Coach Stillings said they are still up for grabs.

“The other positions have been rotating and still some battles that are probably going to be solved at the scrimmage,” he said.

The Arcadia defense swarms and tackles a runner during an Aug. 8 practice. (Independent Newsmedia/Josh Martinez)

Defense

The Titans’ defense will be a 4-2-5, Defensive Coordinator Phillip Battafarano said in an Aug. 8 interview.

Coach Battafarano said he chose this style of defense because many teams are transitioning to a spread-type offense and this defense can counter it well.

“That’s been the theme lately, going into the 4-2-5 to be even against the run and the spread,” he said.

Last year, five of the team’s six leading tacklers were seniors with the team losing the likes of defensive lineman and leading tackler Mekhi Beler, defensive back Rob Heaton and linebacker Jack Massimi.

This year, Arcadia’s defense will feature a mix of younger talent and returning players.

Having a mix has its benefits, Coach Battafarano said, because it allows the senior veterans to lead the younger players and help them to adjust to their roles.

“We’re in the mindset that a sophomore’s not going to come up and really get a starting position unless they earn it and really show they can handle that mentally, not just physically,” he said. “Those sophomores have been able to do that.”

In the secondary, senior Mitch Arndt will anchor the defense at free safety, a position Coach Battafarano calls “the captain of our defense.”

Arndt tallied 39 tackles and one tackle for loss last year, making him the team’s top returning tackler.

Wilkerson and Peterson will likely play as cornerbacks. Peterson returns after making 23 tackles during 2016.

In Arcadia’s defense, the weak and strong safeties come down and play as linebackers at times, depending on the play. Alexander will likely play as a weak safety, Coach Battafarano said.

Junior Jonathan Hunter has also emerged as a frontrunner for the linebacker position. Hunter only played three games last year.

On the defensive line, senior Ethan Echeverria, sophomore David Bahena and senior Justin Skinner will all look to make impacts.

As a whole, Coach Battafarano said what excites him the most is how his defense is pursuing tackles because it’s one of his three key focuses with the team.

“I’ve really ingrained in them we’ve got pursuit, we’ve got to be fundamentally sound and we’ve got to create some turnovers,” he said. “So far, we’ve been very good at those three key things. It’ll be nice to see against another team and see how we can really shape up against it.”