Over the years, Mountain Pointe High School linebackers have been the cornerstone of the team’s defensive success.
Players have earned all-state honors, been selected as the top linebacker in the state and earned scholarships to Pac-12 college programs.
Izzy Marshall, Jordan Leal, Austin Cronen, Wesley Payne and Daulton Rittenhouse have all roamed sideline to sideline when they weren’t in the backfield blowing up a play.
“We’ve had some really good ones come through Mountain Pointe,” Pride defensive coordinator Zach Griffin said. “It’s been a premium position.”
Although there were very few questions about Mountain Pointe heading into the season, the linebacker unit was one of the unknowns.
Senior outside linebacker Rashie Hodge was the known commodity, but the other three starters in the Mountain Pointe 3-4 base package had minimal varsity exposure.
Four games in, those questions have been minimized as the Pride (4-0) prepares to travel to north Phoenix to take on Pinnacle (1-4) this week.
Senior Xavier Cota, senior Michael Washington and junior Jacob Olsen have combined with Hodge to form a solid unit.
“We talked about stepping up because it was our time,” Washington said. “They may not know who we are, but we had great players around us so we knew we had to be ready to play at that same level.”
It has worked out well so far with Washington and Hodge on the outside with Olsen and Cota inside.
“They’ve been really good,” Pride coach Norris Vaughan said. “We knew they had the ability, but until they get out there you never know.”
The 5-foot-9, 200-pound Washington is the most versatile of the three as he drops to defensive end in some packages.
“It opens things up so we don’t have to change personnel,” Griffin said. “We knew with Michael Washington we going to get someone who is technically sound, makes the right read and picks up on things the first time we show it to him.”
The inside backers are blessed by having a defensive line that garners a lot of attention from all five offensive linemen.
“Our linemen are the best in the state and it just frees us up,” Cota said. “We have good looks at the running backs or quarterback because those guys are creating a lot of problems for the line.”
The 5-10, 187-pound Cota moved to linebacker his junior year after mostly playing running back and Griffin feels like the two positions are similar in reading and reacting.
“Xavier is a very instinctual player and makes plays based on what he sees,” Griffin said. “He has a feel for the ball, a lot like players who played running back do. They have that knack for where the space is and how to get through it.”
The coaching staff had a feel for what Washington and Cota could do from their time on the scout team as juniors and the time they saw during games.
The 5-11, 190-pound Olsen spent the entire 2015 season on junior varsity and an injury ended his season early, so there was little direct contact with him to get a true idea as to what he could do within the system.
“He was the wild card,” Griffin said. “He had shown ability and flashes on JV, but you never know if a kid is ready until you see it happen. By the end off fall camp, it was clear he was going to see significant playing time.”
Olsen, who is the team’s top fullback, said he wasn’t going to let the opportunity pass once it became clear he was going to step on the field for the season opener.
“I didn’t expect to start as a junior, but once I found out I was ready to go,” he said. “I never really got first team reps until we got close to the season. Then I just knew I had to keep working harder because that’s only way you keep it.”
So far, the unit has kept up with the lineage of Mountain Pointe linebackers, but there are more physical and competitive games ahead as the season nears its half-way point.
“We are working through some kinks still,” Griffin said. “We are trying to get the guys to talk and communicate the way we’d expect them to at this point into the season. With some of the teams we’ve played these guys would make plays regardless of what I tell them to do. Some things will not show up until we play teams that can match up with us.
“Then we will see where are at that point and how they react.”
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