Salpointe linebacker Ray Figueroa had 117 tackles, 16 tackles-for-loss and six sacks as a junior in 2018.

The Star is counting down the top football players in Southern Arizona in the weeks leading up to the season.

Today: Salpointe Catholic linebacker Ray Figueroa.

The rundown: Figueroa is a 6-foot, 215-pound senior at Salpointe Catholic.

Who he is: Figueroa may not have scholarship offers like some of his other Salpointe Catholic teammates, but he may just be the most important piece to the Lancers’ defense. He stepped into the middle linebacker spot in 2018, replacing Class 4A Kino Region Defensive Player of the Year Chris Aguirre, who had 143 tackles as a senior in 2017.

“The biggest thing that I’ve learned from Chris Aguirre is to study the other team so that when game time comes, I’m able to know where the ball is going before the play even starts,” Figueroa said. “Aguirre has been a big role model on the game I play today, and his ability to go 150% on every play has always inspired me to play at the same level.”

Figueroa had 117 tackles and led the Lancers with 16 tackles-for-loss in 2018. Figueroa also served as a pass rusher, finishing with six sacks and 15 quarterback hurries.

Now back as one of Salpointe Catholic’s team captains, Figueroa will be paired with linebacker Trent Strong.

The two combined for 223 tackles in 2018. With one more season playing beside each other, Figueroa and Strong are expected to be the pulse of Salpointe Catholic’s stout defense.

“Having Ray and Trent inside to anchor our defense, man, I just think good things are ahead for our defense with those guys in the middle,” Salpointe Catholic coach Dennis Bene said.

Figueroa and Strong will be joined by Class 4A All-Kino Region linebacker Shamon Davis, who had 115 tackles in 2018.

The three could make up the top linebacker corps in Southern Arizona .

Proof he’s good: Figueroa was named to the Class 4A Kino Region All-Defensive First Team in 2018. His 117 tackles ranked fifth in Southern Arizona last season; the only returner who had more is Walden Grove’s Rick Avelar.

Figueroa’s most impressive stretch during the 2018 season came in the month of September, when he recorded 41 tackles in four games. He set a career-high twice last year with 12 tackles against Glendale Cactus and Casa Grande Vista Grande. In a 41-15 win over the Cobras, Figueroa had six tackles-for-loss.

He said it: “Ray is really physical and runs very well for a 215-pound linebacker. Ray has an intensity that not many kids have. He’s a very focused kid and a very hard worker. He just likes to compete. He brings a toughness to our defense that we have to have.”

— Bene

Contact reporter Norma Gonzalez at 520-262-3265 or ngonzalez@tucson.com.

Sports producer

Justin Spears is an award-winning sports journalist and Tucson native. He can be reached at jspears@tucson.com. On Twitter @justinesports.