Taren Morrison sets himself apart for Desert Ridge

Taren Morrison sets himself apart for Desert Ridge


Taren Morrison sets himself apart for Desert Ridge


Last year, when it was mostly the Tarek Morrison Show on display at Mesa Desert Ridge, some questioned if the other Morrison would ever catch up.

“Last year was worrisome,” coach Jeremy Hathcock said about Tarek’s twin, Taren. “We were not sure if he was injured or not very tough. We were not sure what happened. We knew he had talent. All of the kids thought he was OK.”

But, in the season opener, in late August, in California, Taren Morrison showed up big.

The 5-foot-11, 185-pound junior running back ran through tackles on his way to 101 yards in a one-touchdown loss against one of the nation’s powers, Gardena (Calif.) Serra.

He hasn’t stopped gashing through lines, finding open spaces and running for touchdowns since.

Morrison followed the Serra game with 256 yards and five touchdowns rushing on just seven carries against Gilbert.

He ran for 213 yards against what was considered a good Phoenix Brophy Prep defense on Sept. 20; 376 yards against Mesa on Oct. 4; 155 yards and seven TDs on 18 carries against Mesa Mountain View on Nov. 1; 244 yards and three TDs against Scottsdale Desert Mountain in the first round of the Division I playoffs; and 360 yards and five TDs last week, again against Brophy.

“It had to be the Serra game,” Hathcock said about when things started to click for Taren. “He was breaking kids’ arms. Most people can’t break those tackles. That’s when I thought he could be good.”

With Hathcock once again reinventing his offense to take advantage of Taren’s talents, second-ranked Desert Ridge (11-1) has been able to absorb the loss of quarterback Tarek Morrison, as the team heads into Friday night’s Division I semifinal against top-ranked Phoenix Mountain Pointe (12-0) at Tempe McClintock High.

“He’s the best running back in the state now,” Mountain Pointe coach Norris Vaughan said. “Next year, he might be one of the top five running backs in the country, he’s that good.”

Tarek missed the first three games while recovering from off-season knee surgery. He tore his anterior cruciate ligament again late in the season, requiring surgery. Tarek only played six games. But Taren has taken over the spotlight this year.

“I’m playing for my brother,” said Taren, who has rushed for 2,472 yards and 38 TDs, averaging 13.5 yards carry. “We’re going to step it up for him.”

This is the time of the playoffs — the semifinals — when the game changers emerge.

From Tucson Salpointe Catholic, where senior Cameron Denson makes an impact in every phase, to Scottsdale Saguaro, where quarterback Luke Rubenzer has been a maestro with the ball, teams are trying to figure ways to contain these dynamos.

But every team that has gone this far has more than that one player it puts everything on to carry the rest.

At Scottsdale Chaparral, it seems someone different makes big plays every game. It has seen the brilliant running of Elijah Castro, the tough catches from Trevor Wood, clutch receiving from Izzy Simpson, the multiple roles of Tyler Whiley, the big sacks from linebacker Hayden Pate, and game-changing hits by linebacker Joe Nauert.

“You talk about game changers, probably the biggest game changer of last week was Joe Nauert jumping over the Marcos de Niza line and forcing a fumble (late in the first half),” coach David Huffine said. “That’s a 14-point swing in that game.”

Here is a look at four more guys who can change the game in the blink of an eye Friday night:

Cameron Denson, Salpointe, 6-1, 180, WR/DB, Sr.

Arguably, the state’s most versatile player. Plug him in at quarterback and he’ll beat you. Split him out wide and he’ll make acrobatic catches. Line him up at cornerback and he’ll pick six it.

For two games late in the season, without starting quarterback Andrew Cota, coach Dennis Bene put Denson at quarterback. He completed 7 of 15 for 103 yards and three touchdowns and ran for 256 yards and four touchdowns in those two wins. On the season, Denson has caught 56 passes for 1,136 yards and 14 touchdowns; has intercepted seven passes, returning four for touchdowns; and has returned six punts for 171 yards and two touchdowns.

“It doesn’t really matter to me, special teams, offense, defense, I just want to win,” said Denson, a University of Arizona commit.

Qualen Cunningham, Hamilton, 6-4, 230, DE, Sr.

Cunningham has 18 1/2 sacks, a school record. He has more than 20 tackles for losses. Very affable off the field, Cunningham turns into an enraged animal on the field, forcing quarterbacks to try to get the ball off faster than they’d like. He sacked Division I, Section I Offensive Player of the Year Zach Werlinger five times in a 32-31 win over Chandler Basha during the regular season. He had four sacks against Goodyear Millennium in the first round of the Division I playoffs.

“At the end of the game, there is only one goal, and that is to get the W,” said Cunningham, who has committed to Texas A&M. “I’m going to do everything in my part to assure that the team wins.”

Jalen Brown, Mountain Pointe, 6-1, 186, WR/DB, Sr.

Mountain Pointe has gained 2,792 rushing yards, but when the Pride wants to dial up a big play in the air, it goes to Brown, who has caught 45 of quarterback Antonio Hinojosa’s completions for 1,026 of Hinojosa’s 1,848 passing yards and 15 of Hinojosa’s 26 touchdown passes. Against Hamilton, Brown burned Hamilton in single coverage twice for touchdowns.

“I don’t worry about numbers; I just want that ring,” the Oregon commit said. “That’s all that matters. I love this team and that’s all I care about right now.”

Luke Rubenzer, Saguaro, 6-0, 190, QB, Sr.

Rubenzer is the emotional leader, chest-bumping teammates after touchdowns, fired up after big plays. His emotions are on full display during the course of a game, and now top-ranked Goodyear Desert Edge will have to figure way to slow down the state’s all-time leader in passing touchdowns (118) in the Div. III semifinals.

He has passed for 3,397 yards and 49 touchdowns with just three interceptions (all in the opener), completing 73 percent of his passes. Add in the 1,136 rushing yards, and Rubenzer is as tough as any QB in the state to contain.

“High football IQ in a read offense like ours,” Saguaro coach Jason Mohns said last month about his quarterback. “We’re putting some kind of read in every play. … He’s able to take a look at the defense, he’s able to read the coverages and make good decisions. And having the tools athletically. He’s a gifted passer and runner.”

Desert Edge coach Rich Wellbrock says Rubenzer’s athleticism and leadership jump out on film.

“When you about kids, who are fun to watch on film, he is right up there,” Wellbrock said. “He plays the game with emotion. He keeps the team going. I have nothing but admiration. You don’t want a bunch of drones running around out there.”


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