PHOENIX, Ariz. – On Monday, December 12th, 2022, two days after No. 2 Basha defeated No. 5 Saguaro for the 2022 Open Division title, BJ Media hosted its first-ever awards night at Camelback High School, celebrating the top performers of the 2022 Arizona high school football season.
Since that night, there has been lots of change, and between seniors committing to colleges and underclassmen transferring schools, most BJ Media award winners have been on the move. Here is where every award winner is as of May 2023:
Offensive Player of the Year: Jamar Malone
The Higley sophomore QB threw for over 4,000 yards and 44 touchdowns to only eight interceptions while rushing for 937 yards and 12 more touchdowns during the 2022 season to lead the Knights to their first-ever 5A state title.
Malone has not only left Higley, but has left the entire state of Arizona and moved cross-country to attend IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. Malone is now a four-star recruit on 247Sports Composite, ranking as the #23 QB prospect and #46 player in Florida.
The Knights quickly found a replacement at QB for Malone as North’s star sophomore Luke Huago has made the move out to Gilbert to take over signal calling for Malone. Huago already holds offers from Arizona State, Arizona, and Oregon after throwing for 1,273 yards, 13 touchdowns, and four interceptions in six starts for the 3-7 Mustangs last season.
Defensive Player of the Year: Anthony Ruiz
The Liberty senior outside linebacker recorded 11.5 sacks and 16.5 TFLs despite sitting out the second halves of several games as the Lions rolled through a dominant undefeated regular season before falling to No. 5 Saguaro in heart-breaking fashion in the Open Division Semifinals.
Ruiz has verbally committed to Arizona State as a preferred walk-on where he will continue to play with a chip on his shoulder, hoping to earn a scholarship offer at his hometown school.
Special Teams Player of the Year: Matthew Krneta
The Hamilton senior kicker connected on 18-of-23 field goals with a long of 46 yards, including two-game winners against Highland and Chandler. Krneta also made all 39 PATs and averaged 57 yards per kickoff as the Huskies went 8-2 with another Open Division appearance, which they lost in the quarterfinals to No. 5 Saguaro.
Krneta has not yet decided on where he will play football this fall, but he did receive a preferred walk-on offer from Northern Arizona and an offer from Rocky Mountain College since the season ended.
UPDATE (06.21.23) - Krneta is headed to the Southeast to play D1 FCS football at McNeese State, he announced yesterday. I would have been shocked to not see the state's best kicker playing at the Division I level. One heck of a last-minute grab for McNeese State as I would assume he will probably be moving into his dorm in the next 2-3 weeks if not sooner.
Two-Way Player of the Year: Elias Johnson
The Tempe sophomore running back rushed for 1,451 yards and 15 touchdowns while catching 24 passes for 233 yards and three touchdowns and making 92 total tackles at linebacker as the lone bright spot for the 1-9 Buffaloes, who are a combined 1-24 in the past three seasons.
Johnson has since transferred to 2022 Open Division runner-up Saguaro, which is going through plenty of changes of their own as former head coach Jason Mohns took the tight ends coaching job at ASU and passed the keys to the Porsche Panamera to new head coach Zak Hill, who brings in experience as offensive coordinator of Arizona State & Boise State.
As far as I know, Johnson will have to sit five games before splitting carries with three-star Jaedon Matthews, who holds 12 D-I FBS offers and is the third-ranked Arizona running back in the Class of 2024 (via 247Sports).
The Sabercats may have a new head coach and QB, but if their offense is anything similar to last year’s, you can expect Johnson to get a workload similar to Zaccheus Cooper, who totaled 86 touches in eight games during his senior season in 2022. Cooper remains uncommitted but holds multiple D-I FCS offers.
If Johnson doesn’t have offers flowing in this spring & summer, best believe he will once he makes the most out of his touches behind one of the best backs in the state and against top competition over the last five weeks and postseason in 2023.
Freshman of the Year: Jayden Pico
One of two award winners to remain at his school, the Shadow Ridge freshman QB did everything he was asked to do plus more as the Stallions’ offense looked sharp in 2022. Many of Pico’s 2026 classmates will likely join him on a very young varsity roster in 2023 after the ‘26 Stallions squad went undefeated last season.
Pico threw for 2,011 yards, 18 touchdowns, and just four interceptions in 10 games last season while also rushing for 740 yards and eight touchdowns as he led the Stallions to a 4-6 record despite an 0-5 start. Expect those numbers to continue to improve for arguably the best ‘26 QB in the state.
QB of the Year: Adam Damante
The ALA Gilbert North senior quarterback’s 2022 season can be described with one phrase: record-breaking. Damante and ‘24 Arizona WR commit Brandon Phelps terrorized 4A defenses all season as he threw for 4,679 yards, 59 touchdowns (yes you read that correctly), and just three interceptions while rushing for 545 yards and seven more touchdowns. A good chunk of that was to Phelps, who finished with 1,710 yards and 28 touchdowns as the Eagles claimed their first-ever 4A state title.
Damante is headed to Northern Arizona this fall, joining Cesar Chavez WR Myseth Currie and Mesa WR Tre Brown among others in the Lumberjacks’ valley-dominant 2023 recruiting class. It is unlikely that he will start as a true freshman, but AZHSFB fans certainly have not seen the last of Adam Damante football.
Running Back of the Year: Markhi McKinnon
The Barry Goldwater junior running back was the head of the snake for the Wing T offense, putting up video-game numbers in the 2022 season. McKinnon averaged a whopping 8.7 yards per carry, finishing with 1,874 rushing yards and 21 touchdowns in just 10 games. He also threw an 81-yard TD pass for good measure.
McKinnon will surely be missed for the Bulldogs as he made the move Southwest to Desert Edge of Goodyear as he looks to pick up right where CSU Pueblo commit Chris Cordero left off for the Scorpions last season.
He will sit five games due to transfer rules and the Carter twins hope for their squad to hit the ground running when he returns and the team expects to be a 5A or possibly even Open Division contender in 2023.
McKinnon has picked up offers from Air Force, Idaho, Montana, Northern Arizona, & UNLV since transferring to Desert Edge and we can expect him to get his two or three-star rating sooner or later on 247Sports.
Wide Receiver of the Year: Dom Esposito
The Higley senior wideout shocked the AZHSFB community as he won the award over several notable names, including ALAGN’s Brandon Phelps, Notre Dame Prep’s Cooper Perry, Mesa’s Tre Brown, Cesar Chavez’s Myseth Currie, his own teammate Carter Hancock, and more.
But the numbers (and jewelry) show he was more than worthy of this award as he recorded 1,381 receiving yards and 17 touchdowns, including a crucial one in the quarterfinal win over Desert Edge as the Knights won the 5A title.
Esposito will play football at the next level and serve the country as he is headed to Army West Point military academy this fall. He is not the only Arizona player headed to West Point, New York, as he will be joined by Central star QB Dominik Bagchi.
Tight End of the Year: Duce Robinson
One word can only describe the Pinnacle five-star tight end: unstoppable. Robinson finished with 1,614 and 14 touchdowns in 14 games as he helped lead the Pioneers to the 6A title game before starring on the basketball and baseball teams for the Pioneers.
Many expected the nation’s top 2023 tight end prospect to commit during the early signing period, but he opted not to and it kept the possibility of entering the 2023 MLB draft open for the star outfielder.
After holding several college fanbases hostage all school year, Robinson recently announced his commitment to USC, where he and Red Mountain four-star WR Ja’Kobi Lane hope to make an immediate impact as true freshmen for Lincoln Riley’s already prolific Trojan offense led by 2022 Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams.
Offensive Lineman of the Year: Caleb Lomu
The Highland four-star senior left tackle pancaked defenders left and right all season long. The Hawks had one of the best rushing attacks in the state en route to their second straight 6A title, in large part due to him and AJ Dutchover.
The pair of senior offensive linemen signed during the early NCAA signing period in December and enrolled at schools one state north. Lomu signed with Utah, Dutchover signed with Southern Utah, and both headed up to campus in January.
To all the USC fans that were in my likes, replies, quote tweets, and retweets every time I mentioned Lomu’s name on Twitter, you guys tried your best and I tip my hat.
Defensive Lineman of the Year: Dominic Solano
The Cactus edge rusher was the heart of the Cobras’ defense. Solano finished with a school-record 27.5 sacks and 48 TFLs, including four sacks and six TFLs in the loss to Higley in the 5A State Championship.
Solano is headed to Montana State this fall, where he will likely continue to terrorize opposing quarterbacks and offenses in the Big Sky, which is considered arguably the toughest conference in D-I FCS. The Bobcats are fortunate that such a dominant player slipped through the cracks of FBS recruiting.
Linebacker of the Year: Alex McLaughlin
The Hamilton linebacker duo of McLaughlin and Taye Brown were a big reason why the Huskies finished 8-2 and made yet another appearance in the Open Division playoffs. McLaughlin recorded 107 total tackles, 17 TFLs, eight sacks, three interceptions, seven pass breakups, three blocked punts, a fumble force, and a fumble recovery in his senior season.
McLaughlin has signed with Northern Arizona, will enroll this fall, and hopes to make an immediate impact for the Lumberjacks in 2023.
Defensive Back of the Year: Ja’Khi Robertson
The Poston Butte junior defensive back edged out Saguaro’s Cole Shivers and Hamilton’s Genesis Smith, who signed with Northwestern and early-enrolled at Arizona respectively, to take the award after a phenomenal 2022 season.
Robertson recorded 94 tackles, seven interceptions, eight passes defended, a pick six, and then three touchdowns as an offensive utility player as the Broncos finished 6-4 before losing in the opening round of the 4A playoffs.
Robertson is very quiet on social media and has not posted anything about college offers, but most media members rank him among the best DBs in Arizona’s 2024 class.
Robertson and Pico are the only award winners expected to return to the schools they attended in 2022.