Note: Uintah finished with a 3-7 overall record in 2013 and was sixth in 3AA North with a 1-5 record. It lost to Desert Hills 40-7 in the 3AA first round.
VERNAL — It may not look like it, but the Uintah Utes are close to relevancy.
Even though last year they came up well short of securing their first winning season since 2008, or winning their first playoff game since 2001, the subtle signs were there that the program is on the brink.
“Last year we won three games, but 23 points separated us from going 7-2 instead of 3-6,” said Uintah coach Cody Reutzel. “The kids realize it’s right there. We just got to keep pushing.”
The four games that ultimately defined Uintah’s season were a 28-21 loss to Ogden, a 21-13 loss to Park City, a 20-18 loss to Tooele and a 32-27 loss to Bear River.
Had the Utes closed out some of those games, they could’ve easily finished with a winning record and hosted a first-round playoff game.
With eight returning starters, the pieces are there for Uintah to take the next step in 2014, but it won’t be easy because it must replace several fantastic seniors. Players like Dylan Hanks, Jed Rich, Braxton Coonis and Caleb Birchell provided such great senior leadership a year ago.
“We lost some seniors last year that were the real core to our program. We’re kind of trying to figure out who we are again and who’s going to step up and really start to lead us again,” said Reutzel, who’s entering his third season at Uintah.
The biggest area that needs to happen is quarterback. Coonis was a decent QB last year, but just as important was the confidence he carried himself with. It was infectious to his teammates, and they played better as a result.
This year’s QB situation is much more fluid as Hayden Bunderson, Brendon Ryan and Kedric Coonis all compete for the starting job.
“No one has taken it and run with it yet. It’s a little disconcerting, but we’ll figure something out. We’ll just have to be a little bit different style this year,” said Reutzel.
None of the three throws the ball as well as Braxton Coonis — who passed for 2,364 yards last year — which means the Utes may run the ball out of the spread formation more.
That presents a great opportunity for senior running back Tyson Colton, who rushed for 514 yards and five TDs a year ago.
Seniors Bunderson and Ryan will still be an integral part of the offense if they don’t get the QB job. Bunderson was an explosive receiver and a huge deep threat for Uintah last year, leading the team in both receiving yards (681) and touchdowns (seven). Ryan added 239 receiving yards and three touchdowns.
Numerous other skill position players are itching for their opportunity too.
“It’s a totally different picture when I got here skill position-wise. We’re pretty deep there. We have good competition at all of our skill positions, that’s exciting for our program,” said Reutzel.
The competition at quarterback isn’t necessarily a bad thing either. The coaching staff just hopes someone rises up and wins the job soon.
With the uncertainty at QB, and the reality that it probably won’t ever be a strength, Reutzel admits defense might need to carry the Utes this year.
“Defensively, I feel we should be extremely tough. We return a lot of guys,” said Reutzel. “The kids understand our defensive system. We had some breakdowns at times, but I think we’re going to have to lean on our defense this year for sure.”