Manti coach Cole Meacham always has high expectations for his team, but he believes the defending 2A state champion Templars could be in trouble this season if things don't unfold just right.
"We won it last year and we could end up fifth in region this year," he said.
Some of that is probably coach speak to motivate his players, but in the ultra-competitive 2A North region, it's not unrealistic.
Manti, South Summit and Millard were semifinalists a year ago and should be good again. Emery is loaded with returning talent and should challenge for the region title, while a healthy Gunnison is much improved. Even North Summit, which lacks experience and depth, could be a factor in the region race.
"It doesn't take much to go from second to fifth in region," said Gunnison coach Yori Ludvigson.
While most coaches agree that four to five teams are capable of winning region, those same coaches also believe that until someone beats Manti, it's still the team to beat regardless of internal question marks.
Manti's biggest concern is in the trenches. Almost all of Meacham's skill position players are back from last year's title team, but with the season just a few weeks away he's not sure who will block for them on the offensive line.
"We're going to be young, and a couple of the seniors that we could have are going to be inexperienced without any good quality varsity snaps. It will be interesting to see what they do in the first couple preseason games," said Meacham.
En route to the state title last year, Manti beat Emery 34-6 in the quarterfinals, South Summit 6-0 in the semifinals and Millard 37-9 in the championship.
In the regular season finale a few weeks before the title game, Manti narrowly beat Millard 20-14, and most were expecting a great rematch.
"We were just as surprised as anybody. We thought we were 100 percent prepared, emotionally ready to go," said Millard coach Marshall Sheriff. "In the state game, they were either a lot better than I gave them credit for, or we surprised them the first game and they decided to play to their potential the second game."
The manner in which Millard lost that game has served as motivation all offseason.
"We're letting that burn deep down inside of us and that's helping us work even harder," said Millard running back Jesse Rhodes, who led the entire state with 1,723 rushing yards last year.
Manti isn't the only team with holes to fill on the offensive line. Millard only returns two starters on the line, while South Summit only has one back.
South Summit coach Jerry Parker isn't too concerned about the inexperience, because the kids coming up are used to winning.
"This is the hardest-working group we've had as a group. Strength-wise, pound for pound, these kids work harder than any group I've had. I'm excited for this bunch," said Parker.
South Summit held Manti to just six points in that semifinal loss last year, and with five of those defensive starters returning, including three linebackers, the Wildcats will feature one of the better defenses in 2A.
The mystery team is Emery, and it has everything to do with experience. A year ago, coach Jim Jones' team started six sophomores and four juniors. All of those kids are returning, and understandably expectations are high.
"We're a lot further ahead at this time than we were last year. Last year, it was like starting from scratch," said Jones.
The schedule is very favorable for Emery with home games against Manti, Millard and South Summit. The Spartans struggled to stop the run last year, and it won't matter whether their tougher games are home or away if they don't get tougher up the middle.
WEDNESDAY: Region 12 preview
(Preseason rankings are based on coaches' votes)
1. MANTI: A year after dominating the trenches en route to title, Koleton Moon is Manti's only returning starter on the offensive and defensive line. Depending on how well the newcomers fill those voids, the Templars should be good again with most skill position players returning. Zane Stevens, Austin Jackson, Jamen Miller and Colin Haymond are all returning contributors at running back. Junior Connor Aste takes over for his brother Brady at quarterback. Kicker Carlo Garcia proved to be a great weapon last season, and the star soccer player is back again this year. 2011 RECORD: 11-1. PLAYOFFS: Beat Millard in championship game.
2. SOUTH SUMMIT: Coach Jerry Parker isn't too concerned that he only has three returning starters on offense and five defensively. This particular group of kids has always won, and he expects that to continue. The strength of this year's offense is at running back. Porter Santos rushed for 484 yards on 62 carries last season while Hayden Packard is back after rushing for 450 yards on 64 carries. Garrett Crystal is the lone starter back on the line. The Wildcats' linebacking core will be the strength defensively with Crystal, Jay Reidhead and Santos all returning starters. Nick Vidrine and Packard will anchor the secondary, with Brad Richins and Cole Richins doing the same at defensive end. 2011 RECORD: 8-4. PLAYOFFS: Lost to Manti in semifinals.
3. MILLARD: For a team with a returning 1,700-yard rusher in Jesse Rhodes, there's a lot of uncertainty surrounding Millard this year. A big part of that is the graduation of three offensive linemen and Pancho Alcala's complementary 1,100 yards rushing. Senior Dakota Bullock will be counted on to replace Alcala's void at both running back and linebacker, and coach Marshall Sheriff is confident in his ability to do so. The return of quarterback Tanner Slavens should bring stability to an offense that will lean heavily on returning linemen DonE Fullmer and Jeremy Aleman. 2011 RECORD: 9-3. PLAYOFFS: Lost to Manti in championship game.
4. EMERY: With eight returning starters on both sides of the ball, the Spartans should be a contender in its second year in 2A. A lot of that will depend on whether a porous run defense from a year ago has improved. Linebackers Cory Cox, Marco Mota and Kaden Feichko will be counted on heavily to stop that run. The secondary will be strong as well with Bailey Faimalo and Tyler Pulli back at corner and David Dyer moving to safety. Offensively, Emery has three returning starters on the line, which should help all-state running back Cox have an ever better season. Dominic Rondinelli's transfer to Carbon will hurt somewhat, but running back is a fairly deep position for the Spartans. 2011 RECORD: 6-5. PLAYOFFS: Lost to Manti in quarterfinals.
5. GUNNISON: Decimated by injuries early last year, if the Bulldogs can avoid them this year they should challenge for a playoff spot. Both offensively and defensively, Gunnison is led by Utah State commit Braden Harris. He'll start at fullback in the spread offense and then anchor the defense at outside linebacker. Taylor Anderson takes over at quarterback, and he should get good protection from linemen Jarrett White, Matt Mecham and Ryker Pickett. Defensively, the Bulldogs will lean heavily on a four-person rotation at defensive tackle to stop the run, while the return of Lafe Christensen in the secondary should be a big boost after he missed all of last season with an injury. 2011 RECORD: 2-7. PLAYOFFS: Did not qualify.
6. NORTH SUMMIT: The Braves have committed to get tougher this offseason, and they'll need to with only a handful of returning starters and a small sophomore and junior class. North Summit is counting on experience in the trenches to make a difference. Cameron Smith is the team's best returning lineman, while Dylan Bingham and Austin Simister shared time on the line as well. Austin Scholes is healthy this season and he'll start at fullback and linebacker. The Braves' three leading rushers all graduated, but quarterback Ben Stephens and running backs Brandon Thiriot and Trevor Hale are hoping to fill those voids. 2011 RECORD: 6-5. PLAYOFFS: Lost to San Juan in quarterfinals.
7. AMERICAN LEADERSHIP: Bobby Kauo takes over as head coach after serving as a longtime assistant at Provo. Following a season in which ALA qualified for the playoffs and nearly upset Richfield in the first round, he's hoping to build off that momentum with seven returning starters defensively and six offensively. Briggs Fulton is a three-year starter at QB, and is coming off a productive junior season in which he passed for over 1,200 yards. The Eagles' lines will be anchored by Oaks Morley, a senior who's getting interest from BYU and several other schools. Carter Henderson will be a key contributor at linebacker and running back, while sophomore Neil Davis should emerge as the top receiving threat. 2011 RECORD: 3-7. PLAYOFFS: Lost to Richfield in first round.
8. NORTH SEVIER: With only about 35 kids out for football this year, it could be a tough season for North Sevier. Coach Ryan Higgs said a lot of kids who've played in the past are too concerned about getting hurt for other sports. The Wolves, however, have a decent junior class which should help them avoid relying too much on the 15 freshmen. Kolton Robins is a returning starter at linebacker, and he'll likely end up starting on the offensive line as well. The two other returning starters are Trent Hampton and Kyler Yardley, who both start at receiver and defensive back. 2011 RECORD: 1-8. PLAYOFFS: Did not qualify.
More preps online
Be sure to log on to DeseretNews.com to read 2012 football previews for Alta, Clearfield, Skyline, Grantsville, Delta and American Leadership 2A North projections