2017 high school football preview: Chaparral Firebirds

The pocket collapses as Chaparral quarterback Jack Millers attempts a pass during an Aug. 7 practice. (Independent Newsmedia/Josh Martinez)

If the Chaparral High School football team wants to return to the playoffs, it will have to do it with a young roster.

The Firebirds lose a large number of players from last year’s 2016 5A playoff team, which made it to the postseason by grace of Notre Dame Preparatory’s probation.

With the loss of several key players, Chaparral Head Coach Thomas Lewis said many of his players are learning new systems on both sides of the ball, forcing his staff to do a lot of teaching.

He said he hopes to have at least 75-80 percent of the system installed by the first game and everything fully installed by the third or fourth game.

“We have some talent, it’s just getting them in the right place and getting them to understand the concept of what we’re trying to put together,” he said in an Aug. 7 interview.

Throughout the offseason, Coach Lewis said the coaches have pushed their team hard and treated many of the young players as they were seniors.

With all the pressure he and his staff have placed on the team, Coach Lewis said he is happy with how his team has progressed.

“It’s a lot to learn and we just have to be patient in understanding they are first-year players, second-year players, they’re learning new systems and having a maturation process where they pick it up,” he said.

Chaparral quarterback Jack Miller throws the football during an Aug. 7 practice. (Independent Newsmedia/Josh Martinez)

Among those young players, sophomore quarterback Jack Miller, a transfer from Scottsdale Christian Academy, has garnered national attention. Maxpreps.com has already named him to its Preseason 2017 Sophomore All-American Team.

However, per Arizona Interscholastic Association transfer rules, Miller will have to sit out the first five games of the season because he is a transfer. Miller has applied for a hardship appeal which, if approved, would allow him to bypass sitting out those five games.

Coach Lewis said the AIA has yet to approve his eligibility and will rule on the appeal the week of Chaparral’s first game.

As for Miller’s talents, Coach Lewis said his size, strength and his passing skills, specifically his ability to connect all over the field, are what make him a threat.

“It makes defenses have to honor the entire field but the part he has to learn is obviously progression as well as sight adjustments,” Coach Lewis said. “Sometimes he’s going to have to read coverages and fronts.”

A year ago, the Firebirds finished the 2016 with a 5–5 overall record and lost in the first round of the 5A playoffs to eventual state champion Williams Field High School.

Chaparral will get a shot at redemption against the Black Hawks Friday, Sept. 15 at home.

The Firebirds first game is at crosstown 6A rival Desert Mountain High School Friday, Aug. 18. Chaparral’s non-region slate also includes games against Horizon High School, Valencia High School in California, Sunnyslope High School and Liberty High School.

Northeast Valley Region play begins for the Firebirds Thursday, Sept. 28 against Notre Dame Prep, last year’s top finisher in region.

Despite the team’s youth, Coach Lewis said his team is capable of beating anybody.

“I like the talent we have and I think lining up against anybody, we can beat anybody that’s on our schedule, it’s just us beating ourselves,” he said.

“As long as we can dial-in and get everything tightened up to the point where it’s disciplined football and execution, excellence will take care of itself which basically translates into championships.”

Offense

Coach Lewis said the Firebirds’ offense will feature a mix of spread and pro-style with a plethora of fronts and formations.

A Chaparral runner splits two defenders during an Aug. 7 practice. (Independent Newsmedia/Josh Martinez)

“It’s going to be really hard to adjust to what we’re doing offensively just because we’re going to be (multi-faced),” he said.

Miller comes in after a banner year at Scottsdale Christian where he threw for 3,653 yards and 53 touchdowns. He also racked up 831 rushing yards and eight rushing touchdowns, good enough for second-highest on the team in both categories.

If the AIA deems him ineligible for the first five games, Coach Lewis said either seniors Davis Chauhan and Justin Deiana will fill the spot.

Sophomore Tommy Christakos, senior Marcus Norvell and senior Dane Breslo all look to be wide receiver targets for Miller.

Both sophomore Deavon Crawford and junior Marqui Johnson will likely play as slot-back receivers.

Johnson was a big part of last year’s offense as he led the team in rushing yards (970) and rushing touchdowns (11). He also reeled in 211 receiving yards and three receiving touchdowns.

This year, Coach Lewis said Johnson is a full-time starter on defense but will also be part of a group of running backs who will see time.

That committee will also include sophomore transfer from Ohio Darvon Hubbard, junior transfer Josh Edwards from Georgia and senior Conlan Carey.

“We’ve devised different personnel groupings that’s going to accentuate their talents and their athletic strengths to get them in the best situation at the tailback spot,” Coach Lewis said.

Several spots on the offensive line are still up for grabs but Coach Lewis pinpointed junior Craig McFarland, senior Jake Jennison, senior Paul Fuimaono, junior Vaughn Grob and sophomore Tre Williams.

As a whole, Coach Lewis said he is excited about the upside potential he sees in the offense.

“We have a lot of weapons, it’s just putting it together at this point so that they know what they’re doing even if they’re playing both sides of the ball,” he said.

The Chaparral defense attempts a blitz as the ball is snapped during an Aug. 7 practice. (Independent Newsmedia/Josh Martinez)

Defense

Much like the offense, Coach Lewis said the defense will be a mix of a 4-3 and 3-4 style with a variety of adjustments and coverages.

In this defense, the Firebirds only return one starter from 2016, which is Breslo as a defensive back.

Breslo was the team’s second-leading tackler behind Parker Walton and was one of three players to make an interception last year.

As far as tacklers, Chaparral loses five of its top seven tacklers to graduation as well as four of its top five tacklers for loss.

Behind Walton, Justus Adair and Blake Fisher recorded the second and third-most tackles for loss, respectively. Fisher, Adair and Walton also led the team in sacks.

In the defensive backfield, Johnson and Crawford will likely fill the cornerback spots. Coach Lewis said he hopes Hubbard can get up to speed and play some time in the secondary.

Coach Lewis said a pair of brothers look to anchor the linebacker crew as Zien and Braxen Tessler will fill the spots.

“(They are) super smart, very aggressive to the point of attack and just very sound players,” Coach Lewis said. “They’re just very high football I.Q. kids.”

On the defensive line, senior Sam Harper, junior Oliver Carras, junior Nate Robinson and Fuimaono, among others, look to be in the mix.

Coach Lewis said the main focus for his team this year is stopping the run, which he thought was an issue for the team last year. This would force teams to pass, which he said he thinks his team is at its best.

“I’m excited about (Defensive Coordinator) Conrad (Hamilton) coming back, being able to dial up some different schemes that’s going to be hard for offenses to handle and guys just flying around getting some turnovers so that we can get the ball back multiple times in a game,” he said.

News Services Reporter Josh Martinez can be contacted at jmartinez@newszap.com or at 623-445-2738

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