We’ve really been able to develop our young players to the point where there’s competition within our own group. —Woods Cross head coach Justin Spencer
Note: Woods Cross finished with an 11-2 overall record in 2013 and was second in Region 6 with a 5-1 record. It lost to Timpview 37-6 in the 4A semifinals.
WOODS CROSS — Depth and defense.
Two crucial aspects to the makeup of a successful team — and two pieces Woods Cross football coach Justin Spencer gets to boast about entering the 2014 season.
Embarking on his third year with the Wildcats, Spencer is returning nine players on the defensive side and four players who have started since their freshman seasons.
"We’ve really been able to develop our young players to the point where there’s competition within our own group," he said, adding that he has coached talented teams throughout his tenure but none that have been as deep as his current team.
"There’s kids nipping at other kids’ toes. They’ve really bought into that method where we really try to focus on seniors and some of these kids have just waited their turn," Spencer said. "That has provided depth, and now you’ve got a class of juniors nipping at their toes, wanting to get it, and a class of sophomores behind them. We’re really proud of what we’ve been able to develop from the bottom up."
Add to that the continuity that comes with needing to replace just two kids on a defensive squad that allowed only 220 points all of last season, 79 of which were at the hands of East (42) and Timpview (37) in the Wildcats' only two losses in all of 2013. Otherwise, Woods Cross never allowed an opponent to score more than 21 points, and that only happened twice.
"Braxton Gunther is a defensive star and Mason Newton is coming into his fourth year of starting," the coach said, adding that Newton has filled roles on the defensive line, as a guard, fullback and middle linebacker, which will be his primary role this season.
"He’s the captain of our defense without a doubt," Spencer said.
There will be changes, though, to what Woods Cross is doing. Those will take place on the offense.
"We have to replace a lot of our key offensive players, but we do have our leading rusher from last year back," Spencer said, noting Gunther's team-best 764 yards and nine touchdowns on 108 carries in 2013.
"We have three offensive linemen back from last year" which, with Gunther, makes up the four returning starters on offense, the coach said. "And then we have some keys that were honestly just waiting their turn and they’re ready to take that next step in their football careers.'
Spencer and his coaching staff are also making some strategic changes with regard to possession and pace of play.
"We’ve kind of been working toward a no-huddle, up-tempo offense," he said. "We had it a little bit last year, but we didn’t use it very much."
This year, though, he wants to see if the faster pace will give his team a better footing against bigger teams, like Region 6 foe East, which had a 2013 scoring output that was nearly double the Wildcats' — both overall (693 versus 394) and in region play (302 versus 175).
"We’ve decided we’re going to make adjustments to try to compete with those bigger, better teams," Spencer said. "We don’t have the beef, really, to be able to push people around, especially when you’re talking about East and Timpview. So we’re trying to do something that can maybe offset our size versus their size."
All things considered, the coach is excited about the nearly 120 names on his roster and the talent level and competitive drive of the group.
"We made it to the semifinals last year and we return a lot of kids," he said. "We have high hopes; we have high expectations."
Woods Cross Wildcats at a glance
Coach: Justin Spencer is entering his third season at Woods Cross, where he has accumulated a record of 20-5. He has earned a career record of 38-20 in his six years as a head coach. Spencer is a graduate of West High and the University of Utah.
(4 returning starters, Spread offense)
Spencer is once again implementing the spread offense he has used since his time coaching at West. He is just making it a little faster. The Wildcats have been focusing on a more up-tempo, no-huddle approach while simultaneously welcoming seven new players into the starting lineup.
Senior Tanner Hammond is taking over as the starting quarterback, a role Spencer said he could have filled last year had it not been for a talented senior already in the lineup.
(9 returning starters)
Nine players have returned to improve upon a Woods Cross defense that was pretty strong a year ago.
"Defense is where we have our star power," Spencer said.
Gunther will lead the way as a defensive back. He totaled 74 tackles and three interceptions a year ago.
Deion Saumalu, a linebacker who had 67 tackles, four sacks and one interception last year, and Mason Newton, a versatile star who had 66 tackles and three interceptions last year, are both four-year starters.
Coaches preseason Region 6 straw poll: Third
Deseret News Region 6 prediction: Second
Bottom line: The Wildcats have great depth this season, but so do the best teams in their region and the top teams across 4A. With a faster offense and quick kids, however, Woods Cross may be able to utilize its depth in a different and effective way. It will depend greatly on if and how the team can incorporate Spencer's new up-tempo schemes.
Woods Cross coaching history
2012-current — Justin Spencer (20-5)
2011 — Nick Longshore (4-6)
2007-2010 — Fred Fernandes (18-20)
2005-2006 — Russ Jones (5-14)
2000-2004 — Alema Te'o (7-42)
1986-1999 — John Hanning (61-81)
1981-1985 — Larry Eldracher (18-29)
1977-1980 — Joseph Hawkins (13-22)
Deseret News First Team all-staters the past 10 years
2013 — Nick Peterson, OL
2013 — Deion Saumalu, LB
2013 — Xequille Harry, DB
2012 — Felipo Mokofisi, DL
2012 — Sean Barton, DB
2011 — Sean Barton, DB
To view second team and honorable mention all-staters through the years, check out the Deseret News All-State Archives.
Sarah Thomas earned a degree in Mathematics from the University of Utah and is currently pursuing an MBA at Westminster College. She has been covering sports for the Deseret News since 2008.