By Gabe Camarillo
A week out from Friday Night Lights, it’s time to get a picture of what the 2023 Central Section high school football season will look like. The landscape is very even across the board. The Liberty Patriots inherit the No. 1 spot as two-time defending Division I champions and, most recently, state champions — but how will they continue to replace college-bound talent?
Could this be the year a Clovis Unified School District high school wins it all? There are three teams from that district in the Top 5. Will there be a team that makes a surprise run for the Division I title? Additionally, Division II has several strong contenders, but will some of those schools be bumped up to Division I?
I’m getting ahead of myself. Before we talk about the postseason, let’s get to the preseason, and that means… preseason rankings!
1. Liberty (Bakersfield)
The defending Division 1-A state champions return five starters on both sides of the football. On offense, quarterback Cole O’Brien utilized his mobility to make plays outside the pocket, and running back Mekhi Delouth shined in the state playoffs (21 carries, 182 yards, 2 TD).
UNLV commit Tre Fulton intercepted six passes at safety last year, and linebackers Drew Underwood (98) and Tyler Lewis (78) finished first and second in tackles, respectively. Dylan Delgado’s four-sack performance in the state championship portends a strong senior campaign. The Patriots added Frontier transfer Ethan Adkins, who paced the River League with 8.5 sacks.
2. Clovis West
Clovis West, fresh off its first TRAC title since 2010, returned 98% of receiving yards from last season. Between Fresno State commits Marshel Sanders and Jordan Pierro, Washington State commit Landon Wright, and emerging recruit Jonavan Darrington, quarterback Tyler Patrick will be a kid in a candy store.
The quick quartet also occupies the four starting secondary spots, behind last year’s TRAC Defensive Player of the Year Tytus Khajavi. The Fresno State-bound linebacker led the league with 7.5 sacks.
3. Clovis East
It was a tale of two halves for Clovis East – a 6-0 start that matched the school’s best in 16 years, followed by five straight losses due in part to major injuries. Quarterback Ty Miller enters his third year as the starter, protected by a trio of big brothers – senior tackle Anthony Razo (6-3, 290 pounds), junior guard Jacob Razo (6-1, 280 pounds), and junior center Joshua Razo (6-0, 295 pounds).
Wide receiver Harold Duvall is joined by transfers Tommy Nix and Blake Mathieu, who led San Joaquin Memorial and Bullard in receiving last year, respectively. By the regular season’s end, Donyell Booker Jr. landed 6th in the Central Section in receiving yards while at Roosevelt; he joined the Timberwolves. Defensively, linebackers Josh De La Cruz and Jax Koontz are back as the team’s top two tacklers.
4. Clovis North
Clovis North has 10 of 11 offensive starters coming back from last year, which includes center James Cazares anchoring the offensive line and speedy wide receiver/defensive back/kick returner Vincent Cordoba. A trio of capable running backs also return – Jackson Cinfel, McKay Madsen, and Andrew Chavez. All five mentioned Broncos were named first team All-TRAC.
Madsen, Chavez, and Cordoba, along with fellow first-teamer Brayden Bitter, are playmakers to watch on defense. Their smashmouth rushing attack guided the Broncos to second place in the TRAC, the highest they’ve finished since 2014.
The Golden Hawks have nine offensive starters back, led by quarterback Adam Copus and his biggest target, 6-foot-5 Boston College commit Jaxton Santiago. His 1,060 receiving yards earned him SYRL co-Offensive Player of the Year honors. Hoben Hoge is another key target for Copus, who will be protected by 6-foot-6 junior left tackle Graysen Lee.
Defensive end Connor Warkentin, committed to Boise State, is among five returning defensive starters. It’s all about the run game for Centennial, needing to establish it on offense and stop it on defense.
6. Clovis High
Starting all 12 games as a freshman, Deagan Rose passed for 2,429 yards and 26 touchdowns, the most of any returning quarterback in the TRAC. He has plenty of help on offense – running backs Roman Moreno and Tyler Marquez complement each other’s skillset, and Jacob Saldate and Maddox Merrill bring the speed at wide receiver. Linebacker Noah Luginbill is already the school’s all-time tackles leader, and the pass rush is spearheaded by senior defensive tackle Brendon Nauheimer.
Central sits in a unique spot, not having an experienced varsity quarterback for the first time since 2016 when Trent Tompkins launched his career. Either David Marquez or Earl Riley will make their first varsity start in Week 1, but they’ll throw to veteran targets like All-TRAC first team selections Braylen Hall and Noel Felix III.
Rounding out the formidable receiver trio is Daylon Scott, and junior RB David Bell is back after carving out 956 yards (8.5 yards per carry). Shondrick Smallwood is a big problem for offensive lines, and if there are more defensive disruptors, the Grizzlies will yet again be in contention.
8. San Joaquin Memorial
The Division I runner-up in 2022, San Joaquin Memorial must replace 10 defensive starters. Jordan Colbert snagged four interceptions in the secondary, and he will serve as a senior leader of the defense. Junior quarterback Jaylen Patterson scored 35 total touchdowns, 20 on the ground, at Vista Del Lago High School last season. He will throw to Ryan Wristen, who co-led the team in receiving yards, and Sunnyside transfer and three-star recruit CJ Jones.
Whereas last year’s team was about dominant defense, the 2023 Panthers will rely on their playmaking offensive additions. Having 6-4, 295-pound center Bowen Stovall definitely helps.
The Rams bring back six starters on offense and seven on defense, although they must replace their two leading rushers. Juniors Logan Slaton and RJ Green were featured prominently in the run game at times last season, giving Garces two experienced options in the backfield. Sophomore Gunter Golla, son of head coach Paul, will start at quarterback. Other newcomers include Highland transfers, RB Austyn Hernandez and LB Nick Gonzales.
The Garces defense will miss the Smith boys, but this unit is veteran nonetheless. First team all-league safety Cage Williams tracked down three interceptions, the same amount as fellow senior Nathaniel Wallace. Green led the team in tackles, just ahead of senior defensive end Johnathan Lester, an All-SYRL honorable mention.
No Kern County quarterback passed for more yards than Malakhi Statler, who conducted the Titans’ offense to the tune of 3,154 yards and 31 touchdowns. Although his top two targets are gone, 6-foot-4 sophomore Kobie Watson is a prime breakout candidate. Brycen Tablit could see more carries, since last year’s leading rusher Samuel Marquez transferred to Bakersfield Christian.
Tablit was a first team All-SYRL linebacker and posted 75 tackles, four forced fumbles, and a blocked field goal. All-league defensive lineman Bryan Chris Holley and sophomore Malcolm Watkins (3 interceptions) also stood out on defense.
11. St. Joseph
Two prolific performers are back, but who will be the quarterback to feed them? Collin Fasse broke the school record for single-season receptions (111) and touchdowns (16). Nevada commit Carter Vargas rushed for 1,321 yards and averaged 145.6 all-purpose yards per game. Yet the quarterback battle is currently undecided between three options, all of whom played junior varsity last year.
The Knights return six starters on defense, most notably cornerback Jeremiah Philson and linebacker captain Anthony Vargas, and the offensive line appears strong with three starters back. Senior Jorge Hernandez (6-0, 305 pounds) is the best returner.
Buchanan experiences a lot of turnover on both sides of the football, needing to replace starters at every offensive skill position and seven defensive positions. There are three reasons for optimism: 1) the offensive line might be one of the best in the Valley – Bryson Harrington, Isaiah Inge, Alec Dansby, Trayce Simes, and Brayden Walton; 2) Fresno State-bound linebacker Logan Studt is a difference-maker; and 3) the sophomore class has talented athletes like bruising running back Logan Phillips and tall, athletic wideout Austin Finegan.
New playmakers are expected to keep Hanford rolling along; their .789 winning percentage since 2019 is impressive, and the success could continue under junior quarterback Daniel Gomez. He outdueled Statler of Frontier in his only start last season. Defensively, San Joaquin Memorial transfer Jordan Black fortifies the secondary; he intercepted three passes at cornerback.
Junior running back Kourdey Glass totaled 27 touchdowns, third-most in the Central Section, and sophomore Albert Richardson is among the area’s best two-way players at RB and safety. Junior JC Turner, standing at 6-feet-3, leads the receiving corps.
The hard-hitting defense, which returns nine starters from last season, should be very good. Linebacker is deep with Gregory Ross, Denis Gagnon, Bodhi Verners, and Houston Hirschkorn, the latter three of whom are seniors. Senior defensive backs Gavin Jensen and Kenyon Simpson combined for 10 interceptions.
Veteran leadership doesn’t stop on defense; Max Warkentin was elevated into a starting role as a freshman and sophomore; his poise under pressure and talented arm will have Kingsburg moving at “Wark speed.” The senior quarterback will likely find wideout Wyatt Boyd a lot.
The Apaches will play good defense and control the clock, giving them a chance to beat anyone they face. By recruiting metrics, Bryson Baker is the best high school junior in the Central Section. Naturally a wide receiver, he played some running back last year. Junior Jacob Niemeyer could log some carries as well after splitting time between running back and tight end. Three sophomores started on the O-Line last season, including 6-foot-3, 285-pound Jonathan Ybarra, and that experience could pay dividends in 2023 with all five starting OL returning.
Senior middle linebacker Connor Bohlken is the defensive linchpin. Head coach Matt Logue says senior Marquis Cropper had a “phenomenal” offseason; he’ll be a key player in the secondary. Plus, yet another member of a loaded junior class for Sanger – defensive end Cody Coles.
Edison will be among the fastest teams in the entire Central Section, whether it’s new, athletic quarterback Phoenix Lawrence or his quartet of reliable receivers – Dezjour Malone, Rashad Perry, Ray Brown, and Taemell Horton. Eight offensive starters are back for Edison, but the big question is, can Lawrence pick up where Ya’J Vance left off? Vance passed or rushed for 81% of the team’s total yards last season.
Nick Ball dominated on the defensive line as he totaled 109 tackles and 12.5 sacks. If Edison’s defense, which brings back four starters, and offensive line hold up, the Tigers are a sleeper pick to win the CMAC.
Eight offensive starters return at Redwood, most impressively among them four offensive linemen. Alex Perch and Jacob Florez are each three-year varsity running backs, and their rushing production will help new quarterback Erik Rico. At receiver, Moses Burk and Evan Galley were the best duo on the team last year – and they’re back. All-State defensive end Kai Preisendorf recorded double-digit sacks for the second year in a row. One of five returning starters on defense, he will lead a big, physical defensive line.
The defending Division II champions, Lemoore is replacing a star quarterback of its own. Senior Johnny Cuhna and junior Aiden McDaniel are competing for the starting QB job. A lot of offensive talent departs, but the defense – which had three shutouts last year – brings back nine starters. Spencer and Jace Silva, along with Gio Quintero, create a formidable linebacker corps. Trevon Gaffney is the big stopper up the middle, and Kobe Green and Kiontre Harris patrol the secondary while also bringing explosiveness at wide receiver. Harris has scholarship offers to play at San Diego State, Washington State, and Utah State.
19. Central Valley Christian
The Cavaliers have the most recruited running back in the Central Section, Bryson Donelson, who will choose between Boston College, Fresno State, and four other colleges. Having to replace its quarterback and top two wideouts is easier for CVC with Donelson in tow. Brent Kroeze fits the mold of past successful Cavalier quarterbacks, and he’ll be protected by returning senior linemen Caleb Noeske and Tyler Hughes, who have started four and three years on varsity, respectively. Linebacker Trent Greidanus is the most experienced guy back on defense. That side of the football is replacing eight starters.
20. Bakersfield Christian
Like their Milk Bowl rival, the Eagles have a quarterback and skill players to replace. Sophomore QB Talen Mather is transferring from Burroughs High School in Ridgecrest, and another transfer, RB Samuel Marquez, will bolster the backfield. Marquez led Frontier in rushing yards and logged almost 1,000 yards of total offense last season; he’s a pass-catching threat, too.
Senior Chase Furtado brought down a Central Section-leading nine interceptions and earned South Yosemite Valley League Player of the Year. He was joined on the All-Area first team defense by teammate Bo Carr, whose 8.5 sacks were good for Top 10 in the Section. With Furtado’s help on offense and defensive returners like Carr and DL Brody Herda, head coach Darren Carr’s squad appears as the favorite to repeat as league champs.