By Nikash Nath
PHOENIX – California, Florida, Georgia, Alabama and Texas are known for their Friday Night Lights, their fanatical football cultures, their mainlines to prestigious football powerhouses. Arizona, by contrast, has often gone under the radar when it comes to producing top collegiate and professional football talent.
That is rapidly changing. Arizona has five high school football recruits in the Top247 rankings, tying with three other states for the 10th spot in the country.
The players listed are tight end Duce Robinson (Pinnacle), cornerback Cole Martin (Basha), offensive lineman Caleb Lomu (Highland), tight end Jackson Bowers (Mesa Mountain View) and offensive lineman Elijah Paige (Pinnacle).
A huge reason for Arizona high school football’s rise on the national stage is because of the outstanding coaching, according to Pinnacle coach Dana Zupke.
“I would put our coaches in Arizona up against anybody in the country, and I mean that,” Zupke said. “You see how we do against out-of-state teams and we are right there with them.”
Zupke credited the surge in Arizona’s population as a contributing factor in the state’s growth as a football powerhouse.
“It really starts with the fact that we had a lot of people that moved here,” Zupke said. “I’ve been coaching out here for 30 years and just the population explosion alone has made a huge difference in the level of talent and what it was 30 years ago or 20 years ago, even 10 years ago, is just the fact that Arizona is a place where people move to.”
From 1990 through 2020, Arizona has gained roughly 3,486,274 people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Arizona has also had a 34.8% population growth since 1990, which ranks second in the country behind Alaska and Nevada.
“In 2005, I went and watched high school football in Arizona and it just wasn’t very good. They had one school, Hamilton, that was far and above more dominant than anyone,” Chandler coach Rick Garrison said. “I started working at Chandler in 2010, and I would say from 2010 until now it has jumped leaps and bounds (because of) really good coaches. (It’s) a very offensive-minded state with lots of players that go onto Division 1 football and college football and the NFL that have their roots in Arizona.”
Feeder programs throughout Arizona have also added to the state’s football success, due to the familiarity and cohesiveness these programs teach their athletes.
The relatively new addition of feeder programs – a pipeline of schools that enable graduates to move onto specific colleges or programs – have become a worldwide trend with many high schools taking notice.
“Thirty years ago there was no such thing as a feeder school. The closest thing we had was the Mesa schools (that) had junior high football where everyone else was relying on Pop Warner football,” Zupke said. “I think in the early 2000s, you are starting to see very intentional feeder programs, meaning schools that recognize that if you have a feeder program it’s a way to attract and retain kids.”
Despite the sustained success feeder programs have provided high school football programs, not everyone relies on them.
“I don’t have feeder teams, I don’t deal with anyone in the youth football program,” Garrison said. “Maybe others do, but we don’t.”
Although Robinson, the highly-recruited Pinnacle tight end, didn’t play youth football growing up, he still sees the significance of building an early football foundation.
“I’ve never actually ever played tackle football, but it was very prevalent here. There was a bunch of feeder schools growing up,” Robinson said. “I think they did a really good job because the high schools were really involved in the feeder programs, so I think they did a really good job of preparing kids for high school football.”
Robinson, the No.1 overall high school prospect in Arizona and the No.1 tight end prospect in the country according to 247Sports and ESPN, is encouraged by the growth of Arizona high school football.
“Over the past couple of years, Arizona has produced some really talented guys, some guys that have gone on and impacted different schools at a young age,” Robinson said, adding he thinks “over the next couple of years” Arizona will continue to produce exceptional talent.
The Chandler Wolves are an Arizona powerhouse, winning five consecutive Open Division and 6A championships from 2015-20. The Wolves have produced a remarkable 11 players who have made NFL rosters, ranking Chandler second among Arizona high schools behind South Mountain, which has produced 13 NFL players.
“We have a culture that is based on competition, a culture that is based on family, and our kids aren’t afraid to compete and our parents allow their kids to come here and compete,” Garrison said. “People that want to put their kids in a culture that provides growth both physically, technically in the football world and helping the community, I think we do a pretty good job of that.”
There are currently 27 active players in the NFL who attended Arizona high schools. Chandler leads the way with Chicago Bears wide receiver N’Keal Harry, New Orleans Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan and Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker Hamilcar Rashed Jr.
Baltimore Ravens tight end Mark Andrews, a product of Desert Mountain, and Jacksonville Jaguars wide receiver Christain Kirk, who attended Saguaro, are two of the top active NFL players to come out of Arizona. And cornerback Byron Murphy, another Saguaro product, is quickly emerging as a shut-down defender in his third season with the Arizona Cardinals.
With the extensive talent Arizona has and continues to produce, the Grand Canyon State is fast becoming home to top-tier high school programs that continue to churn out major college and pro football prospects.