Note: Union finished with a 4-6 overall record in 2013 and was fifth in 3A North with a 1-4 record. It did not qualify for the playoffs.
ROOSEVELT — Union football coach Matt Labrum has just one wish this season — simplicity.
Labrum made national news last year for suspending the entire Cougars football team, and as a result spent more time dealing with discipline issues and media requests than simply coaching football.
As mentally draining as it was, Labrum doesn’t regret one bit how he dealt with the off-field issues that were plaguing his team.
“Our biggest thing was being good kids on the field and off, and it all contributes. I think kids are starting to get that. Are we perfect? No. I think a lot of people thought it would change in a week and never have a problem again, and that’s not true. I think the kids understand what we value, what we want to be, and what we want to be doing, and I think it’s been a huge positive carryover,” he said.
It took suspending the entire team for several days and forcing them to earn their jerseys back for that message to start to sink in, and a year later it could pay dividends on the football field.
“Going through that, kids having to grind through the tough things, and coming back and wanting to do those things has brought them closer together,” said Labrum.
With eight returning starters on both sides of the ball motivated to make up for a lost season, the Union Cougars are ready to make some noise.
“We’re real excited about what we have coming back,” said Labrum.
Union was 3-2 with solid victories over North Sanpete and Park City before the suspensions came down last year. Afterward, it went 1-4 and wasn’t even competitive in three of the four losses.
Experience alone should help Union close that gap in 2014, but it’s going to take more than that. Labrum said his players must continue to get stronger and find a way to raise the intensity in practices and games to shed the “soft” label.
In everything Union does, it will lean on Nic Smith.
A first-team all-stater a year ago, the senior will be counted on to do even more this year.
“We call him slash. He plays a lot of different positions for us. Running back, some wing back. Might see him a little bit at quarterback too,” said Labrum.
From his linebacker position, Smith led Union with 84 tackles last year to go along with his three sacks. Offensively, he hauled in 29 passes for 657 yards and eight TDs while adding 350 rushing yards and seven TDs.
Smith is taking the added responsibility in stride.
“I’ll to my one-eleventh and everyone will do their one-eleventh,” said Smith.
Senior quarterback Tye Winterton is another player that Union is counting on for big things. An injury pushed him into the starting lineup the final month of his sophomore season, and then last year he started all 10 games.
He was prone to interceptions at times, and his completion percentage needs to improve, but Labrum likes what Winterton brings to the table.
“He just has a calmness about him, he has a good demeanor, he keeps the kids calm in the huddle, keeps things in perspective, real positive,” said Labrum.
All the skill position guys should feel comfortable with the boatload of experience blocking for them. All five offensive linemen from a year ago return: Jordan Gurr, Kolton Gufey, Calvin Edrington, Hawk LaRose and Korbyn Bertoch.
Bertoch may move to tight end this year, but he’d still be used primarily as a blocker.