TEMPE — Less than a dozen miles north of Sun Devil Stadium, Saguaro High School (Scottsdale), winners of 10 state football championships and owners of a plethora of superstars with mass Division I talent over the years seemed like a tease to Arizona State football for too long.
In 2015, Texas A&M star wide receiver, national five-star recruit and Saguaro alum, Christian Kirk, dazzled the Sun Devils with 109 receiving yards and a touchdown along with a 79-yard touchdown punt return in his first career collegiate game at Houston’s NRG Stadium. Less than a year before, he graduated from Saguaro and passed up an ASU offer.
In 2016, cornerback Byron Murphy, a four-star national recruit with loaded offers could have been the solution to Arizona State’s secondary woes. He committed to Pac-12 foe Washington instead.
“The fans thought something was going on and that I was an ASU hater," said sixth-year Saguaro head coach Jason Mohns. “I’m an ASU alum. My dad coached football for Frank Kush. My mom was a cheerleader there. But at the end of the day, the kids are going to choose what’s best for their future, and I always leave those decisions up to the family.”
But in 2017, a Sun Devil and Saguaro pipeline finally erupted. Three of Sabercats’ 18 players who received Division I scholarship offers, committed to Arizona State; Army All-American four-star K.J. Jarrell, the matured and game-ready Kyle Soelle and the incredibly smart Corey Stephens.
Since being freshmen at Saguaro, the three have only known one thing — winning. In four seasons in the Sabercats’ program, each saw four Division 4A Arizona state championships. Saguaro just beat Catalina Foothills (Tuscon) on Friday, Aug. 18 to improve its demanding win streak to 26 games in a row since 2015.
“First and foremost, they’re guys that know how to win who have a championship pedigree,” Mohns said. What comes along with that is the work ethic that it takes to win at a high level... All offseason long. The preparation in the weight room and then in the film room and taking care of their bodies and all the things you’ve got to do to win at a high level and win consistently.”
What comes with a championship players, comes from a championship coach.
“Coach Mohns really runs Saguaro like a college,” Soelle, the freshman linebacker said. “Periods are the same, film sessions are the same. Everything he did over there treated us and prepared us for college”
If there’s anything the three can agree on, the high school to college transition hasn’t been easy, but it’s been smoother because of Mohns. Saguaro nicknames itself Sag U because it’s run like a 1,300-person college.
“His practices are extremely disciplined and you’re always moving at a fast paced and it prepared me a little bit more than usual for the pace here that it a little bit difficult to prepare for,” Stephens said. “Practices are timed, strictly timed periods kind of like here... When you’re on the field it’s all business.”
It’s been two seasons since a Saguaro player donned maroon and gold, that being Patriots running back D.J. Foster. Let’s take a look inside Arizona State’s newest talent with “championship pedigree.”
Safety K.J. Jarrell (6-foot-2, 176 pounds)
As an Army All-American, and a four-star rated by Scout, Jarrell was Arizona State’s most nationally recognized Saguaro commit in its 2017 class.
Jarrell, just like Kirk and Murphy, practically “could have gone anywhere,” as Mohns described it. Jarrell passed up offers from Notre Dame, Nebraska, Washington, USC and others before he pledged himself to Arizona State.
With mass changes in the secondary, Jarrell has seen mass amounts of playing time on second-team and could even hit the field this season.
In Arizona State’s recent connection with Saguaro, Jarrell may be the most valuable piece of the pipeline, and he’s all for it.
“Just how we’re transitioning from Saguaro to ASU, that’s a tradition that’s just going to keep going on. Just from like D.J. Foster,” Jarrell said. “More kids are just going to want to come here and especially after what we do this year. When we have a good year this year, they’re just going to want to come here more even more after that.”
While Jarrell is just 172 pounds with a 6-foot-2 frame, Stephens and Soelle both deemed him incredibly “physical,” and not afraid to rush the quarterback.
“He can come into the box and he’ll lay his body out there for his team,” Stephens said. “He’s selfless, so he'll go out there and make the play. Sacrifice his body. Lay some hits. He’s a smart football player.”
Linebacker Kyle Soelle (6-foot-4, 207 pounds)
As a three star-recruit, Soelle may have been thrown under the radar. But after an ASU practice last week, it came to be that Soelle may see the field in his first season, according to Doug Haller of azcentral.com.
ASU defensive coordinator Phil Bennett said today that freshman LB Kyle Soelle, a former Saguaro standout, will play this season.— Doug Haller (@DougHaller) August 15, 2017
Soelle has seen second-team reps for the Sun Devils and with his size, he looks as if he should already see the field. Mohns praised him for his frame, but sees a ton more in his maturity.
“We had a summer practice and workout leading up to his senior year and everybody cleared out... I came back in and Kyle’s here by himself sweeping out our locker room. He wasn’t asked to do it, but you know he appreciated the things that this program has provided for him and he respected it,” Mohns said.
Mohns then expanded on his praise for Soelle.
“On playing as a true freshman. That doesn’t surprise me because he’s physically mature, but more importantly, he’s mentally mature,” Mohns said. “Lots of kids, they’re 18 year old’s and it’s they’re first experience away from home and they take a year to grow up before they’re really ready. But Kyle is one of those kids who is very mature, so it’s not surprising to me that they’re going to play him early.”
Corey Stephens (6-foot-3, 299 pounds)
Stephens, being a two-star recruit may have seemed to have been the least valuable from Saguaro, but his former coach sees Stephens as a program builder.
“If you want to get an in-state kid that’s going to help you win, I can’t think of a better example than Corey Stephens,” Mohns said. “He’s the kind of guy you’ve gotta build a foundation with. And then you can go out and get kids like K.J. and get kids like Kyle that were the higher recruits.”
Stephens was a football foundation scholar athlete and is enrolled into the Barrett Honor’s college. Not only does he bring his game with him, he brings his mind to the field.
“He’s like having a coach on the field and at the high school level, you don’t typically have that, or if you do, it’s maybe it’s with a quarterback or maybe a linebacker,” Mohns said. “He probably knows the offense as well as any other of our coaches here at Saguaro… Not only is his IQ off the charts, but his football IQ is off the charts.”
Days leading up to Arizona State’s home opener against New Mexico State on Aug. 31, Stephens admits he likely won’t play this season. He said he’s still adjusting to the speed of the game and improving on his technique. But according to captain and junior offensive lineman Sam Jones, Stephens is on a solid path forward.
“He plays smarter than me. He’s way ahead of where I was as a freshman. There’s good days ahead for him for sure.”