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Spiegelman's Takeaways: Star-studded championship week in Texas

Ja’Tavion Sanders
Ja’Tavion Sanders (Sam Spiegelman)

ARLINGTON, Texas — The Lone Star State put a bow on a very long and daunting 2020 high school football season marred by COVID-19 with a star-studded championship weekend in AT&T Stadium. Teams involved in the large-school championships included Southlake Carroll, Austin Westlake, Denton Ryan, Cedar Park, Aledo, Crosby, Cedar Hill and Katy.

Regional analyst Sam Spiegelman was on hand for the final four games of the Texas high school football season. He recaps the major takeaways from the finale in Arlington.

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THE CURIOUS CASE OF JA'TAVION SANDERS

Ja’Tavion Sanders has proven to be one of the most prolific playmakers in high school football over the past two years. As a senior, the Rivals100 defensive end racked up 1,150 yards receiving on 63 catches and scored 16 touchdowns. He scored a 17th in the season opener — also at AT&T Stadium — when he returned an interception to the house against Arlington Martin. Defensively, Sanders finished the season with four sacks.

Sanders has ranked among the best weakside defensive ends in the nation since debuting the 2021 class rankings, but buzz around AT&T Stadium centered around his future on offense.

Sanders signed with Texas in December, but now Steve Sarkisian is the man charged with guiding the state’s top athlete to either tight end or defensive end when he settles in on the Forty Acres. That’s a conversation to determine whether the 6-foot-4, 230-pound Sanders would thrive as a pass-catcher in Sark’s offense or be better served giving the Longhorns a long, highly athletic edge-rusher to mold.

From an offensive perspective, Sanders would have a case as the best tight end in the country. He has excellent hands, has size, can out-maneuver defenders for jump balls and is physical after the catch to pick up extra yardage. He’s an obvious candidate to create mismatches for Texas on offense.

Defensively, there are flashes. His Week 1 pick-six was a prime example of his athleticism. Sanders is long and strong and added weight as a senior has added to his game. On other occasions, the motor isn’t there.

Sanders has all the tools to excel at either defensive end or tight end. In terms of impact, a pass-rusher opens the door for Sanders to make a dynamic impact on the Longhorns’ defense. But if he were to go take the tight end route, there may not be a better one than Sanders in this 2021 class.

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POTENTIAL FIVE-STARS EMERGE IN 2023 CLASS

As we close the door on the 2021 class in the next few weeks, and focus shifts to the 2022 group, the 2023 class also begins to enter the picture. On Championship Friday and Saturday at AT&T Stadium, two of the best in-state certainly emerged as blue-chip prospects from a national angle.

Denton Ryan linebacker Anthony Hill missed the early part of the season, but has been an enforcer in the middle since carving out a starting role. The 6-foot-2, 225-pounder flies to the football and plays downhill. He plays at full speed and roams sideline-to-sideline with exceptional quickness for a linebacker, which was also seen on designed blitzes. Hill got after the quarterback, ran down ball-carriers trying to cut upfield and didn’t take his foot off the gas.

Whether he surfaces as a tight end like Sanders or a big-bodied wide receiver, Austin Westlake offensive weapon Jaden Greathouse has emerged as one of the premier pass-catchers in the country. He did it in last year’s state title game as a freshman and there was no sophomore slump this time in Cowboys Stadium.

Greathouse (6-foot-3, 215 pounds) was able to get noticeable separation from the pair of defensive backs trying to contain him. He has ups, great hands and is also willing to fight for yardage after the fact, which led to multiple broken tackles. Greathouse capped his sophomore season with five receptions for 103 yards and a touchdown in the Class 6A Division I championship game.

EWERS, KLUBNIK AMONG THE BEST IN THE COUNTRY

The Class 6A Division I finale pinned two of the nation’s premier quarterbacks in the 2022 class going head-to-head for the title. In a game full of momentum swings, the back-and-forth between Quinn Ewers and Cade Klubnik was the reward.

Ewers conquered the talent-rich Duncanville defense to advance to the championship and faced an equally as disciplined Austin Westlake defense on Saturday night. Ewers was sensational for much of the game, surgical out of the gates with fantastic timing and precision on his throws. He looks effortless as he throws outside the numbers and he can zip in throws on underneath routes.

Ewers navigates well within the pocket and showed off the ability to throw off-balanced, off his back foot and on the move without losing anything on his fastball or accuracy. His throws off his back foot remained on target and in the vicinity where only his receiver could make a play.

On a fourth-and-inches, Southlake Carroll coach Riley Dodge leaned on his five-star quarterback to throw a back-shoulder fade to four-star tight end RJ Maryland to move the sticks, which speaks volumes about the trust this staff has in Ewers.

Ewers finished the game 23-of-39 for 351 yards and three touchdowns in addition to two interceptions. The first turnover came with a Westlake defensive end in his face. The pass floated and was picked. His second came on a throw made too early due to pressure and the receiver had yet to make his break to the sideline.

Even in defeat, Ewers justified being the nation’s No. 1 overall prospect in 2022. People heavily invested in Texas high school football consider Westlake to have a claim as the best defense in-state and Ewers kept Carroll on-course. His upside is through the roof.

Klubnik was an obvious MVP for Austin Westlake, especially with a game plan that has the junior quarterback using his legs to slice up the Carroll defense. The Rivals250 prospect finished an efficient 18-of-20 for 220 yards and a touchdown while rushing for 111 yards and two scores on 17 carries. Make no mistake about it -- Klubnik had speed turning around the edge and must be deemed a dual-threat with this type of performance.

Klubnik is mechanically sound and with a clean pocket, can place the ball anywhere on the field. He was able to make accurate throws on the run with a smooth, seamless delivery. He was equally as dynamic from the pocket, maintaining his poise and continuing to push the ball downfield.

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SALTER MEETS HIS KRYPTONITE

Rivals250 quarterback Kaidon Salter has been on an upward trajectory ever since his impressive postseason debut last fall where he anchored a furious comeback against Denton Guyer. As a senior, Salter rolled. He entered the Class 6A Division II championship game with 45 touchdowns (31 passing, 14 rushing) and 3,646 yards of total offense (2,571 passing, 1,075 rushing).

Salter has effectively masked any of his offense’s deficiencies with his big arm, his mobility and his ability to extend plays and make things happen. However, a talented Katy defense solved Salter’s magic.

Salter took what the Katy defense was willing to give up underneath, but they eliminated the long ball, sent pressure and contained the dangerous dual-threat with speedy linebackers tasked with spying him. At halftime, Salter competed 7-of-14 attempts for 47 yards with an interception — his sixth of the season — as Cedar Hill was held scoreless.

We got a glimpse into a more vintage version of Salter in the second half. He showcased his impressive deep ball, his arm velocity and ability to throw effortlessly on the move with good accuracy. The Tennessee signee finished 12-of-24 for 112 yards and two interceptions while also adding 46 yards rushing with two touchdowns.

Salter has a unique style of play that’s complemented by his arm power and ability to zip passes downfield with ease. He’s also very mobile and uses his ability to extend plays to attack downfield or move the chains with his legs. In a lot of ways, this future Vol plays a lot like Russell Wilson.

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ALEXANDER MAKES HIS MARK

There was a question back in August whether Denton Ryan would have 2022 five-star defensive tackle Keithian Alexander for its championship drive this fall. His presence in the middle of the Raiders' defense from October on has been a key part of the team's success leading to the team's trophy presentation on Friday night.

Alexander, who has worked feverishly to improve his weight and subsequently stamina, earned a starting job and saw expanded playing time over the course of the season.

In the finale, Alexander had 4.0 tackles and effectively pressured Cedar Park from the middle of the defensive line. Although he didn't come away with sacks, Alexander swatted down three passes and was able to be disruptive in the backfield in pursuit.

Alexander's pressure set up the rest of his defense and defensive linemen for success. He has a case as the nation's top interior lineman.