When many teams turn to their bench to let a starter get some rest, there’s a noticeable drop-off in production.
That doesn’t figure to be a problem for Desert Pines this season, at least along the defensive line.
Led by Gabriel Lopez, a Review-Journal first-team all-state selection last season, the line should be the strength of the Jaguars, who open the football season Aug. 30 at home against Bishop Manogue.
Joining Lopez on the line are Braezhon Ross, an honorable mention all-state selection, Jonathan Michael Pickett, Fatafehi Vailea and Blaze Homalon.
And if the Jaguars have to go any deeper than those five, they can turn to Darnell Washington, the state’s No. 1 recruit and one of the nation’s top 10.
“We’re very talented at that position. A lot of those guys have been with us for four years and have really developed,” Desert Pines coach Tico Rodriguez said. “I have an amazing defensive line coach, Michael Cosgrove. He played here, went to Idaho and played in the NFL, so he brings a lot of experience. These guys are getting developed at a high level, and it shows on game days.”
They had an impactful group from which to learn.
The senior class when they were freshmen was littered with Division I talent and helped the Jaguars win Class 3A state championships in 2016 and 2017.
“My freshman year I came in and was on varsity,” Lopez said. “Those guys were really big. They were like monsters. At practice, they were throwing us around, but they were teaching us the ropes. By the end of the season, I was starting on the line for a state championship. I won a state championship with them, and they just taught us how to win. That’s been embedded in our minds ever since.”
That’s also part of what made how last season ended so frustrating for the Jaguars.
They led Arbor View 21-7 in the fourth quarter of a second-round 4A playoff game, but the Aggies rallied in the final six minutes for a 28-21 victory.
While Rodriguez said it was a combination of events that led to that loss, including a series of short fields for Arbor View, sometimes the defense has to stand tall no matter what situation they’re dealt.
That’s a lesson that’s been taken to heart.
“All of our guys that played that game are coming back,” Homalon said. “We felt in our hearts that we needed to get better conditioningwise. When the starters are in the entire game, you get fatigued. It’s perfectly fine, but we had to get in better condition. This year, the way our coach has been conditioning us, I feel like that won’t happen again. Our leaders have said that’s not happening again.”
It’s unlikely the Desert Pines starters will need to play the entire game, and Rodriguez can throw different looks at opponents based on the strengths of his defensive linemen.
Rodriguez said he tried to hold Washington out of defensive drills in practice because he’s learning a new offense and figures to be a main fixture at tight end. After all, that’s the position he’s being heavily recruited to play in college.
“But he’s like, Coach, I need to play defense,” Rodriguez said. “He wants to be part of that unit. When you have a kid like that coming off the bench, that’s pretty special.”
This unit also has a unique bond that comes from competing alongside one another for so long, but also has been shaped by competing against each other every day. None of them wants to be left behind when it comes to making tackles, sacks or forcing turnovers, and they definitely don’t want to be the one responsible for allowing a big play.
“There’s a lot of competition between us. Our defensive line drills are just — we get really rowdy because it’s aggressive,” Homalon said. “No one’s spot is guaranteed. I’m a captain, but if I don’t show up and show out for a game, they’re going to put somebody else in. There’s a lot of competition on this team, and I like that. It pushes everybody to get better.”
Contact Jason Orts at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @SportsWithOrts.
Teams to watch
Bishop Gorman: The Gaels cruised to their state-record 10th straight state championship.
Liberty: The Patriots won six straight to reach the state semifinals before a 42-28 loss to Gorman.
Arbor View: The Aggies rolled to a 12-2 record and advanced to the state semifinals.
Desert Pines: The Jaguars boast the state’s top recruit and defensive line from an 8-3 season.
Moapa Valley: The Pirates won 10 games and advanced to the state semifinals.
Needles: The Mustangs won 10 games before falling in the state championship game.
Spring Mountain: The Eagles outscored opponents 634-168 in winning the state championship.
Players to watch
QB Micah Bowens, Bishop Gorman: The dual-threat senior had 2,770 yards and 29 TDs passing and added 927 yards and 15 scores rushing.
RB Jordan Norwood, Cimarron-Memorial: The senior rushed for 1,463 yards and 16 touchdowns last season.
WR Rome Odunze, Bishop Gorman: Bowen’s favorite target caught 60 passes for 1,347 yards and 15 touchdowns as a junior.
TE Darnell Washington, Desert Pines: The state’s top-ranked recruit is a matchup nightmare for defenses and also helps along the Jaguars’ vaunted defensive line.
OL Hayden Engel, Bishop Gorman: The senior is one of the most sought-after recruits in the state at his position and still has room to grow at 6-5, 275.
ATH Gerick Robinson, Centennial: The junior caught 44 passes for 565 yards and three scores, but it’s what he does on special teams that makes him special. He returned two kickoffs 95 yards for scores and added another TD on a 50-yard punt return.
DL Gabriel Lopez, Desert Pines: How do you pick one from among five MaxPreps preseason all-state picks on the defensive line? You take the one who was the most productive. That was Lopez, the Northeast League’s defensive MVP with 51 tackles, 23 of them for loss, and 13 sacks.
LB Hunter Kaupiko, Faith Lutheran: The playmaking senior had 113 tackles, 19 for loss, and 12½ sacks. He also returned two of the four fumbles he recovered for touchdowns.
DB Anthony Myles, Legacy: The senior free safety had 99 tackles and four interceptions last season.