Su'a Cravens and Jamal Morrow are still maturing. That's bad news for their rivals in the Southwestern and Sunbelt leagues.
The two juniors — Cravens, a do-it-all linebacker at Vista Murrieta, and Morrow, Heritage's explosive replacement at running back — led their programs to milestone feats in 2011, with the Broncos claiming their first CIF Southern Section title and the Patriots earning their first trip to a section championship game. Both were selected by local coaches and sports writers as the All-Valley players of the year: Morrow on offense after piling up a Valley-best 1,720 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns and Cravens on defense after tallying 96 tackles and 11 sacks while emerging as one of the Valley's hottest college recruits ever.
Nearly two dozen colleges have already offered scholarships to the Broncos' 6-foot-2, 210-pound playmaker. You don't need a microscope to see why.
"His first three steps, his closing speed, is the best I've had," Vista Murrieta coach Coley Candaele said. "That's what all these college coaches see."
They've seen it since Cravens started at Temecula Valley as a freshman. He had two scholarship offers (UCLA, Hawaii) lined up before he stepped on the Broncos' practice field after transferring mid-semester that year and he lived up to that billing as a defensive starter for Vista Murrieta during a breakout sophomore year that saw Cravens tally 98 tackles and eight sacks.
This year, Cravens had a whole new speed to his game. And it wasn't all about how fast he could break down a play on his own — whether lining up as a linebacker or a safety on defense or a home run threat out wide or in the back field for the Broncos' offense.
"I think the biggest thing he improved this year was not trying to make every play," Candaele said. "His whole life, he's been told to make every play. Before the ball is even snapped, figure out what they are going to run and stop it. The biggest thing he learned this year was patience, especially at the end of the year.
"His patience got much better. Rather than trying to make every play, he trusted his teammates and instincts."
Cravens' pinch-hit exploits on offense — more than 1,000 total yards and 19 touchdowns — earned him Southwestern League Offensive MVP honors and helped the Broncos navigate their way through the early rounds of the playoffs (he rushed for two TDs against La Verne Damien and rumbled for 201 yards and three TDs on just 10 carries in a quarterfinal win over Riverside North).
Then, in the semifinals against a high-flying Upland team, Cravens was back to his bruising self on defense, where he was in on three sacks and collected a season-best 12 tackles.
"He's what I thought he'd be," Upland coach Tim Salter said after his team lost its first game of the season to Vista Murrieta. "He's a heck of a player."
Cravens has received a heck of a lot of attention, too, from rival coaches to recruiters (USC is at the top of his board, Cravens said) to awards committees. Already, MaxPreps named him a first-team All-American linebacker, and Cal-Hi Sports tapped him as the state's top junior and a finalist for its state player of the year award.
"It's crazy," said Cravens, who also had four forced fumbles and three interceptions this year, one returned for a touchdown. "I didn't think I'd ever be up for that. It's a blessing and it's never because of what I've done; the people around me have helped me out. I'm real happy about it."
Morrow, too, is happy after a breakout junior campaign saw the 5-foot-8, 180-pound running back fill big shoes left behind by Scott Benson, an All-Valley first-team selection last year after piling up 1,377 yards and 22 touchdowns during a season that saw the Patriots' undefeated season end in the second round of the Eastern Division playoffs.
Benson's understudy had a hand in that run, too, rushing for eight touchdowns and more than 700 yards as an electric sophomore who had coach Kraig Broach figuring out new ways to get Morrow into the lineup.
The wildcat was one way. This year, there was no doubt that Morrow would emerge as a special featured back in the Patriots' offense, and that prospect didn't daunt the junior for long.
"Benson left a legacy and I didn't want a dropoff from him," said Morrow, who also totaled 35 tackles and three interceptions as a defensive back. "I wanted to keep it going, and studying behind Scott last year helped me out so much. I just tried to take it all in last year and put it in this year."
It worked. Morrow averaged 8.6 yards per carry and picked up another 168 yards and a score through the air. Better yet, when yards proved hard to come by as the Patriots delved deeper into the postseason, Morrow found ways to come up with big plays. Take, for instance, two long touchdown runs (34 and 59) against Citrus Hill in a semifinals win. Morrow also gutted out 106 yards and a score on 25 carries in a 24-17 loss to Fontana Summit in the championship.
"He was our big playmaker," Broach said, "and he was a complete running back in that he is turning 2-yard gains into 7 yards to keep drives going for us. He was everything you'd want in a running back."
And he'll be back for next year. So, too, will Cravens.