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The Class 5A Division I championship always represents an exciting game for the passionate football fans of the Lone Star State, but Saturday's edition features extra sizzle because of the dramatic story lines enveloping the quarterbacks.
After an injury sidelined Allen (Texas) star quarterback Matt Brown, backup Tucker Carter stepped up to lead the suburban Dallas school to its first state title game. Hightower (Missouri City, Texas) signal-caller A.J. Highsmith is the son of Alonzo Highsmith, the third overall pick in the 1987 NFL draft. The younger Highsmith will guide his team at Reliant Stadium, which is about 200 yards from the Astrodome - where his father played for the Houston Oilers.
"He's got a good bloodline," Hightower passing game coordinator Freddie Maynard said. "He's physically gifted. He's fast, quick and strong and smart. ? He's special."
The offensive centerpiece for Hightower (13-0), Highsmith has passed for 1,972 yards and 27 touchdowns with just three interceptions. His virtuoso performance guided the Hurricanes past San Antonio Clark in the semifinals. He completed 10 of 13 passes for 220 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions while rushing three times for 44 yards and a touchdown. Highsmith will enroll at the University of Miami, where his father won the 1983 national championship.
The quarterback situation for Allen (14-1), ranked fourth in the RivalsHigh 100, seemingly has taken a page from "Varsity Blues." Brown is a dynamic weapon who surpassed 1,000 yards in both rushing and passing. When he injured his collarbone on Nov. 22, some thought it would squash Allen's state title hopes. Instead, Carter responded by beating powerhouses Permian, Euless Trinity and Round Rock Stony Point in successive weeks.
"He's done an awesome job for us," Allen coach Tom Westerberg said of Carter. "He'd be a starter for just about anybody else, but we just happened to have a pretty good one right there in front of him."
Westerberg, though, remained tight-lipped as to whether Carter or Brown will start at quarterback for the state final.
"We haven't missed a beat when [Carter] jumped in there," Westerberg said.
Even if Carter receives the nod at quarterback, Brown likely will have some role. He rushed twice for six yards against Stony Point, and the Hurricanes - ranked No. 22 in the RivalsHigh 100 - have prepared for both players.
More of a dropback passer than Brown, Carter completed 12 of 19 passes for 134 yards and no interceptions despite gusty conditions last week. He demonstrated both his arm strength and winning moxie, penetrating that wind by hitting Dakarai Pecikonis on a go route with 39 seconds left for a 21-yard touchdown to give the Eagles a 23-21 victory.
Pecikonis - who leads the team with 769 receiving yards - is a key cog in Allen's four wide receiver spread offense, which has averaged 381 yards and 35 points. Other receiving weapons include Uzoma Nwachukwu, a 6-0, 186-pound Texas A&M commitment who runs a 4.4 40-yard dash, and Bradlee Waddell.
They will encounter resistance from a Hightower secondary that includes two Football Bowl Subdivision (i.e., Division I-A) prospects at safety. Hard-hitting 6-foot, 185-pound Colton Valencia will likely move to cornerback at Texas A&M, and 6-2, 195-pound Dele Junaid will play at Ole Miss next year.
Another task facing the Hurricanes' defense, which primarily uses a three-man front, will be to slow running back Jeremiah Williams, who ran for a 35-yard touchdown in his last game. A starter since halfway through his sophomore season, he has 1,188 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns. Linebacker Tomas Luna will lead the charge against Williams. Although Luna (5-10, 185) lacks great size, he compensates with sound instincts and good fundamentals.
"He's the heart and soul of our defense," Maynard said. "He's going to be around the ball every play."
The Allen defense has a nose for the football as well. How this unit, permitting just 16.9 points a game, matches up against an explosive, versatile Hightower offense will serve as a key to the title game. The Hurricanes do not run many different plays, but their offense features a number of formations. They morph from a run friendly, I or three-back alignment to three and four wide receiver spread sets.
"We just try to do whatever we can," Highsmith said, "to put the defense in a bind and give us the advantage."
Wide receiver Darius Johnson, who has 816 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns on the year, serves as Highsmith's main target. A 175-pound SMU commitment with 4.4 speed, Johnson has soft hands and runs crisp routes.
"This kid does stuff that most high school kids can't do," Maynard said.
This year's Allen squad similarly has gone above and beyond. It already has advanced farther than any football team in school history. Allen's season includes a signature playoff win against defending state champ Euless Trinity, then ranked No. 1 in the RivalsHigh 100.
Hightower is also a newcomer to the state title game. It completed an arduous journey, earning playoff victories against Clear Creek (59-17), North Shore (28-21), Cinco Ranch (24-21), Pearland (38-21) and San Antonio Clark (28-7). With another win Highsmith can join his father, who won a high school state championship at Christopher Columbus High in Miami.
The competitive Highsmiths have wagered on the game, and A.J. joked that a Hightower win could enhance his Christmas haul. He, however, became more serious when discussing his ideal stocking stuffer.
"There's not really that [many gifts] I want now because I am so worried about football," Highsmith said. "I just want to win the state championship."