Sac-Joaquin football gains strength

Granite Bay's Johnny Cooley (with dad, Robert) had one of top SPARQ ratings at 2012 Nike combine in Oakland. Mark Tennis/ESPNHS

From the Nike events of last weekend, it’s obvious that rebuilding seasons are becoming extinct for top programs in the CIF Sac-Joaquin Section. Lincoln of Stockton may have early edge in 2012 for the Cal-Hi Sports preseason state rankings with its running back-quarterback combo, but defending champs in Division I, II and III have impressive players, too.

After watching the Division I and Division II championship games last December in the CIF Sac-Joaquin Section and noticing all of the seniors leading squads at Granite Bay, Pleasant Grove of Elk Grove, Vacaville and Folsom, you’d think that those teams are going to drastically fall off in 2012.

You’d be thinking incorrectly. The section has emerged as a genuine hot spot in the state in the last five to six years and at last weekend’s Nike-based football events in the Bay Area all of the top teams from the section showcased players who look like they’ll be able to step up this fall.

Granite Bay, which won the 2011 Division I title, is known for having senior-dominant teams every season. The Grizzlies who came to the Nike SPARQ testing event Saturday at Laney College were led by projected running back Johnny Cooley, who had one of the top SPARQ scores of the day. Receiver Tony Ellison, who will be a junior next season, had the third-fastest 40-yard dash of the day while Granite Bay players generally did well across the board. On Sunday at the Nike camp, Grizzly linebacker Beau Hershberger (6-2, 220) showed he might be one of the best at his position in Northern California this fall.

Pleasant Grove isn’t going to have a much-hyped recruit like tackle Aric Armstead, but the Eagles will be fine with top juniors Josh Adams (WR), Isaiah Sanders (RB) and Wyatt Demps (WR/DB). A tight end, Tyler Weathersbee, also looked like he can play.

Defending Division II champ Vacaville didn’t have anyone at Sunday’s Nike camp at Contra Costa College, but had a strong group on Saturday at Laney. The players all said that quarterback Nic Ardave, who played the second half of last year’s final after starting quarterback Colemen Christensen got hurt, is ready for a breakout season.

One of the most interesting players to watch on Sunday was Folsom quarterback Taylor Miller-Wing. He had plenty of zip on his throws and was hanging mostly with the top group of quarterbacks during the rotations. And since Taylor is even bigger and stronger at 6-foot-3, 195 pounds than the last two record-breaking quarterbacks for the Bulldogs – Dano Graves and Tanner Trosin – we see very little drop in production at that position. WR Phillip Carter also was outstanding.

While all four of those Sac-Joaquin finalists as well as Division III champion Del Oro of Loomis, which will be led by returning all-state underclass player Brandon Monroe, will surely be in the mix for a high preseason state ranking, the one team that may have a slight edge to be preseason No. 1 for the section is Lincoln of Stockton.

Coming into the weekend, it already was a given that the Trojans will have one of the top running backs – maybe the best returning running back – in the state in Justin Davis, who committed to USC last week. Davis scored 39 touchdowns as a junior and rushed for more than 2,400 yards. But after the weekend it’s also obvious that they will have one of the state’s top quarterbacks as well in Zack Greenlee, who went over 2,000 yards passing as a junior.

At the Elite 11 regional on Friday and at Contra Costa College on Sunday, Greenlee threw as accurately and with as much polish as any of the big-name quarterbacks there, including USC commit Max Browne from Skyline of Sammamish, Wash., who some rank as the nation’s top quarterback. Greenlee isn’t as big as Browne and it’s hard to know how well he did on his reads (which is huge for the Elite 11 coaches, such as ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer), but he’s clearly among the best in the state and with him and Davis in the same backfield that’s going to make Lincoln’s offense extremely potent.

Lincoln’s problem in recent years, of course, and it may not be going away any time soon, is beating local rival St. Mary’s. The Rams also had plenty of talented players in attendance at the two events, including receiver Kaodi Dike (offer from Nevada), defensive back Na’im McGee and receiver Bryan Pasqual.

Other top Sac-Joaquin teams that had players shine over the weekend included Grant of Sacramento (with Nike camp defensive line MVP Misi Taifane plus defensive back Trayvon Henderson), Elk Grove (with running back Robert Frazier), Nevada Union of Grass Valley (with linebacker Tanner Vallejo) and Franklin of Elk Grove (with running back Steven Rogers).

Whichever team emerges from what looks like a deep and talented group of contenders and possibly gets to the first Northern California CIF Open Division bowl game is going to be very hard to beat indeed -- even for big, bad De La Salle of Concord, the three-time defending CIF Open Division champion.

Corrections or comments? Email Mark.Tennis@espn.com.