Casa Grande Union vs. Desert Edge 11/15/19

Casa Grande Union linebacker Jake Thomas dives into a pile to gang tackle a Goodyear Desert Edge ballcarrier Nov. 15 in Goodyear.

EDITOR’S NOTE: PinalCentral is going through each football position group to list five players to watch in Pinal County this season. This is the second installment in the series. Keep in mind that some of these players may play multiple positions and don’t always fit neatly into one position group.

CASA GRANDE — On Tuesday, PinalCentral’s first look at five Pinal County football players to watch by position group started with the defensive line. Going to the next level of the defense, the discussion shifts to linebackers.

Here are five players to watch this season at linebacker.

Jake Thomas — SR, Casa Grande Union

When it comes to Casa Grande’s defense, the conversation starts with Thomas. The man in the middle was a mainstay and stabilizing force last season, as the Cougars won their first playoff game in 26 years.

Thomas racked up 75 tackles in nine games and made the PinalCentral all-county first team. He has a nose for the ball and meets the ballcarrier in the hole with force. The Cougars have a smart, hard-working leader in Thomas.

Malachi Rodriguez — SR, Coolidge

The Coolidge defense will be a strength this year, and Rodriguez is another weapon. Like Thomas, he also made the PinalCentral all-county first team in 2019.

Rodriguez was the leading tackler for the Bears, as he had 78 total stops, including four tackles for a loss. He also forced three fumbles and added six fumble recoveries and an interception. His ability to take the ball away makes him an impact player.

Brody Bullard — SR, Apache Junction

They may have been playing poor competition at the time, but the Prospectors defense had three consecutive shutouts last October — a remarkable achievement. Bullard played in just eight of Apache Junction’s 10 games, and he still led the team in tackles with 83.

He added 10.5 tackles for a loss, which was third on the team behind a couple of seniors.

Bullard’s presence will be crucial for the Prospectors because the 2019 team was senior-heavy. While he led the team in tackles, the next eight top tacklers were seniors.

Mauricio Lopez — SR, Santa Cruz Valley

The Dust Devils return some good talent from last year’s team that made the 2A state semifinals. The defense was particularly strong, and Lopez a big reason why. He was second on the team with 64 tackles, including three tackles for a loss, and added an interception and a forced fumble.

A PinalCentral second team all-county selection, Lopez also made second team all-conference in Class 2A. He pairs with defensive lineman Diego Castillo to form a formidable front seven for Santa Cruz.

Victor Aguirre — JR, Florence

It was a disappointing year for Florence in 2019, but Aguirre made a big leap forward as a sophomore. He led the Gophers with 83 tackles and also had an interception and three tackles for a loss.

Aguirre already has imposing size, as he was listed at 6-2 and 206 pounds as a sophomore. If the Florence defense is going to turn the corner this season, Aguirre will likely lead the way.

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Brian Wright is the sports editor at PinalCentral. He can be reached at bwright@pinalcentral.com.

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