Every year we feel we have as good a shot as anybody to win the region. We come in with one goal, and that's to win our next game, and if we do that every week, we're going to win the region. —Erik Thompson
Note: Northridge finished with a 9-3 overall record in 2012 and went 4-1 in Region 1. The Knights lost to eventual state champion Jordan 49-13 in the 5A quarterfinals.
LAYTON — Every high school football coach, player and fan knows that Friday nights can be something special.
And Northridge High head coach Erik Thompson thinks this year's edition of Friday Knights could be something special, too.
The Knights from Northridge certainly won't be the biggest bunch of Friday night footballers in the state, but Thompson likes what he's seen from his team thus far and feels like they could accomplish great things.
"Every year we feel we have as good a shot as anybody to win the region," he said. "We come in with one goal, and that's to win our next game, and if we do that every week, we're going to win the region. For three years in a row, we've been very close to reaching that goal, but it is really hard to win all of your football games, and we've fallen just a few plays short of winning a region championship.
"But any game we go into, we're gonna have a shot, and that's all you can really ask for. It's going to come down to us and our execution, our ability to not make mistakes, and being able to make big plays in key games. If we can do that, we can be as good as anyone around here.
"There's a buzz and an electricity in the air," Thompson said. "The kids are confident and excited, and they know there's power in knowing that our destiny is in our own hands. If we play well and we come together, then we've got a shot to be special."
Speaking of special, the Knights have a special quarterback in returning starter Nate Kusuda, a senior whose older brothers were also quarterbacks who both won state championships in their senior seasons at Northridge.
"He's a very smart, polished quarterback, and this is the first time since I've been head coach that we've had a quarterback that's been a returning starter for us," Thompson said. "So we're excited about that and, in my opinion, he's improved as much as anyone on this team. He's gained 20 pounds, his arm strength is better, and the game's really slowed down for him.
"I'm as confident in him as I've ever been in a quarterback, especially when it comes to the mental aspect of understanding what we're trying to do. I fully expect him to be one of the best quarterbacks in the state this year."
Behind Kusuda is junior Ben Jackson, a dual-threat quarterback who can run as well as pass, and the Knights will have a Wildcat package in place for him to ensure he sees the field in certain situations.
Kusuda will have a solid receiving corps to throw to, including senior starters Robert Crawford and Houston Lacey and junior backups Jaylen Dyson and Dallas Moklebust.
"I feel like I have four really good wide receivers, and they'll all play equally and we'll rotate them," Thompson said. "I have great confidence in all four of them. They all have different strengths — some are tall and fast, some are short and quick, some are slower but with really good hands and run really good routes. So we have an eclectic group in there that we feel we can get the ball to and they'll do a good job for us."
At running back, junior Dayan Lake will step into a starting role this season, and Thompson can't say enough about this young man who will also slide over into a slotback position at times.
"In my opinion, you can't find a better one in the state of Utah," the Knights' coach said. "And he is a better person than he is an athlete. He is an absolute joy to coach, as competitive as you can get, but he's as kind and respectful to his teammates as you could ask, too.
"He's a great leader, and the thing I like about him is he plays hard all the time and he doesn't care if he gets the ball — which is ironic because he's gonna get it a lot. He's fast and he's tough, and he'll be a definite impact player for us."
Other tailbacks include senior Marcello Martinez, who starts at cornerback, and junior Dante Joseph, who Thompson says is "a raw kid but he can really run and has good size."
The Knights will employ what Thompson calls "a three-headed monster" at fullback in seniors Austin Ricks, Akem McDaniel and Jaiden Bair, who are all talented and tough. All three start on defense and are somewhat short but strong, fast and powerful, Thompson says.
At tight end, Northridge has what Thompson calls "one of the best ones in the state, and his backup's not far off," which means opponents will see the Knights employ a double-tight end formation at times. The starter, Jace Colby, is a 6-foot-3, 220-pound senior who led the region in yards per catch last season. "He's really improved and gotten bigger, faster and more confident this year," Thompson said.
Behind Colby will be promising junior Raven Kennedy.
At center, senior Darren Alexander is the returning starter and will be backed up by junior Kyle Eichmeier, who will also be a backup at guard where senior Beau Ballard is a returning starter and is joined by senior Chaz Gray.
The starting tackles will be seniors Shane Hinckley and Tofer Warden, while senior Brock White and sophomore Noah Kramer, a 6-3, 255-pound performer who Thompson says is a definite Division I prospect, will back them up.
The Knights' O-line averages just 5-11 and 190 pounds, but Thompson says "their ability to gel and come together as a group is gonna be the key to us being good."
Coach Thompson readily admits that he lost three of the best players the program's ever had — wide receiver Zach Hayes, fullback Dallin Isaacson and tailback Davy Adams — through graduation. That trio not only provided great production and performance on the field, but were such great leaders and hard workers off of it as well.
"We have young kids coming up in their spots that are talented and are gonna do a good job," Thompson said. "But there's something about Friday night lights — your hair stands up on the back of your neck and the game's a lot faster and it's more intense and it's more challenging manly.
"But I feel like we have some great guys that'll fill into those spots. It'll probably take a couple of games to put all the pieces together, and then we'll get confident and figure it out, and I don't think there will be a huge dropoff there. As a whole on offense, I think we can be as good as last year, depending on how fast these young, new guys get their feet under them."
Defensively, Kramer will start at tackle and Ballard, Hinckley and White will rotate at the other spot, with junior Albert Toa providing depth. Josh Hawes, a senior, will start at defensive end, with Gray and McDaniel sharing time at the other D-end spot. Seniors Nick Johnson and Collin Schroeder will back them up.
Thompson says his two starting linebackers are both dandy ones. Ricks is a returning starter who led the team in tackles last year. He's strong and fast, and Thompson expects him to be one of best linebackers in the state this season. He'll be joined by Bair, who is also very strong.
"They're both short, really strong and can flat out run," Thompson said, "and I don't think you can find two middle backers in the state that are better than ours. I'm real confident in their ability to play."
Backing them up are seniors Stockton King and Andrew Cuneio.
Martinez and senior Matt Dillon will start at cornerback, with Joseph and senior Colton Stanger providing depth there. Lacey is a returning starter at strong safety, where he's backed up by Moklebust. The starting weak safety will be Dyson while Lake, who has verbally committed to play at BYU, will start at free safety. Moklebust will also be a backup at both of those safety spots as well.
Crawford will serve as the Knights' place-kicker and punter.
"Our morale's very high here, the kids are very excited and they have high expectations for themselves," Thompson said. "The kids have set the standard here at Northridge. They've been real good examples of how you work and how you prepare.
"More than any other year, I feel like the leadership on the team is running the team and they make sure practices are going like I like them to go and making sure that people are working hard and that people are accountable.
"Our kids are gonna be prepared, they're gonna be motivated, and I think there's enough talent there that we can give someone a fight every single night," he said, also commending his coaching staff for the tremendous job that they do. "Once we figure out who we are and if we can avoid injury, I am highly confident that at some point this season this team is gonna catch fire and they're gonna be a really tough team to beat. Now it's just up to us as to how long that takes."
Thompson sizes up the region race as the most balanced he's ever seen it, with Syracuse and Davis both boasting strong teams and Fremont, Layton and Northridge all aiming for a high rung on the league ladder. He sees Weber High, under new head coach Matt Hammer, as the wild card that will be much improved.
"On every given Friday, anyone's gonna be able to win a game and you'd better come prepared," Thompson said. "There are a lot of games in this region that could go either way."
And he has high hopes that they'll go the Friday Knights' way every time.
Northridge Knights at a glance
Coach: Erik Thompson begins his 10th season as head coach at Northridge, where he has guided the Knights to a 63-35 overall record and eight state playoff appearances in his first nine years as head coach at the school.
(4 returning starters; multiple formations)
With senior Nate Kusuda returning as the starting quarterback, that's a luxury the Knights are not accustomed to having. His receiver corps is strong with the foursome of seniors Robert Crawford and Houston Lacey and juniors Jaylen Dyson and Dallas Moklebust, along with tight ends Jace Colby and Raven Kennedy. Dayan Lake is a dynamic junior running back, and senior running backs Austin Ricks, Akeem McDaniel, Jaiden Bair and Marcello Martinez give the Knights additional offensive firepower. With seniors Darren Alexander, Beau Ballard, Chaz Gray, Shane Hinckley and Tofer Warren anchoring the O-line, Northridge should not have any trouble moving the ball and putting plenty of points up on the scoreboard this season.
(4 returning starters; 4-2-5 scheme)
Senior linebackers Austin Ricks and Jaiden Bair are a pair of returning starters who will spearhead the Knights' defensive effort. With sophomore Noah Kramer and senior Josh Hayes holding down the fort on the D-line, and Marcello Martinez, Houston Lacey, Jaylen Dyson and Dayan Lake looking like difference-makers in the secondary, the Knights will have a bunch of guys who can fly to the football and make gang-tackling an art form.
Coaches' preseason Region 1 straw poll: Third
Deseret News Region 1 prediction: Fourth
Bottom line: The Knights face four consecutive games away from home early in the season, including their first two league games at Viewmont and at Syracuse. After that, though, they get to play three of their last four games at home, including key league matchups with Davis and Layton. With a high-powered offensive lineup engineered by senior quarterback Nate Kusuda and junior running back Dayan Lake, scoring points shouldn't be a problem for this potentially explosive ball club. A lack of size and depth could be a factor, however, especially if injuries rear their ugly head. But head coach Erik Thompson has been impressed by the engaging spirit, togetherness and camaraderie of his team. They're a dedicated bunch with great leadership and high expectations for themselves, and he feels like they'll be strong contenders for a region title and possibly a deep postseason run.
Felt’s Facts for Northridge High School
All-time record: 144-84 (21 years)
Region championships: 5 (1993 co, 1998 co, 2001, 2002 co, 2003)
Playoff appearances: 16
All-time playoff record: 20-13
State championships: 3 (2000, 2001, 2002)
State championship record: 3-0
Most played rivalry: 20 meetings with two schools, Clearfield and Layton, both dating back to 1992. Northridge is 10-10 against Clearfield and leads Layton 15-5. Last met Clearfield in 2010.
Felt’s Factoid(s): Northridge has won the most championship games — 3 — without a loss. The Knights have scored the most points in a four-game playoff series, 212 (2001).
Northridge coaching history
2004-current — Erik Thompson (54-35)
1996-2003 — Fred Fernandes (67-26)
1992-1995 — Mike Rosky (12-26)
Deseret News Mr. Football recipients
2001 — Daniel Coats, WR
Deseret News MVPs the past 10 years
2002 — Brian Kusuda, QBComment on this story
Deseret News First Team All-Staters the past 10 years
2012 — James Baird, K
2012 — Eliyah Mayberry, DL
2012 — David Adams, RB
2011 — Karson Casteel, QB
2011 — David Adams, RB
2011 — Dallas Clark, OL
2011 — Austin Tate, LB
2010 — Brock Johnson, DB
2006 — Nate Ellis, RB
2006 — Mike Baker, DL
2004 — T.J. Canales, QB
2004 — Bryant Eteuati, KR
2003 — Lynwood Johnsin, RB
2003 — Tage Clifford, WR
2003 — Mitch Ketcham, OL
2003 — Rustin Miller, LB
2003 — Jamar Lee, SP
2003 — Skylar Campbell, K