We’re in a unique situation this year where our senior class is the biggest of the three classes. This senior class has really stayed together and been together for a long time. —Skyline head football coach Justin Thompson
Note: Skyline finished with a 4-6 overall record in 2013 and was fifth in Region 7 with a 2-4 record. It failed to quality for the 4A Playoffs.
EAST MILLCREEK — For the first time in 30 years, the Skyline High football team failed to quality for the playoffs in 2013, resulting in the hiring of a new head coach, Justin Thompson, in an attempt to keep the winning tradition of Skyline football alive.
“We’re in a unique situation this year where our senior class is the biggest of the three classes. This senior class has really stayed together and been together for a long time,” Thompson said. “I’m just really excited about the intensity this team brings to things. They played a lot last year, they didn’t have the success that we are used to, and they’ve really got a chip on their shoulder about that. They feel like they have a lot to prove. They feel a lot of responsibility to make sure the tradition of Skyline football is lived up to. And they’ve done everything they can to make sure that happens.”
During their 30-year playoff streak, the Eagles managed to capture a total of eight state championships to put Skyline on the map as one of Utah’s premier football programs.
Fast-forward 30 years, and Thompson is trying to get the Eagles to buy in to his system in an effort to get them back to the level of success that they enjoyed for many years.
“Missing the playoffs last year is something that is unacceptable. Obviously, that is a major priority,” Thompson said. “The biggest things I’ve tried to emphasize is the goal has to be unity, brotherhood and to have a really, tight-knit group. The goal has got to be to improve the way that we prepare every day and in the offseason. It really just starts as improving as individuals and it’s a process.”
Since missing the playoffs last year, the Eagles didn’t just bury their heads in the sand. Rather, they came together and began training almost immediately after their season came to an end.
Since December, the Skyline football players have fully invested in the program and pushed each other to their limits to ensure this whole “missing-the-playoffs” thing was just a fluke and will never happen again.
As a first-year head coach at Skyline High, Thompson was blown away by his team’s offseason dedication and pursuit for greatness, and it has only grown since Thompson joined the Eagles this season.
“I can honestly say this is one of the best offseasons I’ve ever been a part of,” Thompson said of his team’s efforts. “From last December right up to today, these kids have been paying the price. We had a great core group of guys that started it all, and every week, that number grew until we really felt like we’ve got a really invested team.”
Skyline has an experienced squad returning on both sides of the ball this season, and with 13 returning starters (five on offense, eight on defense), the Eagles should be packed full of leadership, discipline and a work ethic to lead the youngsters on the team by example.
The three team captains — Champman, Russon and Bowles — appear to be great leaders on and off the field and will need to set the bar for the rest of the team while leading by example.
“I think we’ve got to set it at the top,” Chapman said of his goals and expectations. “We’re expecting the most we can out of our team. We’re expecting high energy every game. We want to see a perfect effort every game, every play and every practice.”
Despite returning 13 starters, Skyline lost two spectacular defensive ends in Hanani Aiono (48 tackles, 6 1/2 sacks) and Jake Wittwer (57 tackles, 8 1/2 sacks), while also losing two key safeties due to graduation.
Thompson knows how rare it is to get players of that caliber
“To lose two DEs who are both off playing college ball, it’s very, very difficult to replace guys like that. We also lost two very productive safeties as well, so it’s definitely a concern,” Thompson said of his defense.
Thompson knows replacing college-bound defenders is no easy task, but he is confident there is enough depth and talent on this team to fill those holes nicely.
“One thing we’re excited about is Jordan Croft, who started in the interior last year (and) will play on the end this year,” added Thompson. “We think even though we lost some of the best defensive players we’ve ever had, we feel like we can replace them with guys with a different skill set. We have a solid group there.”
Skyline Eagles at a glance
Coach: Skyline High alum Justin Thompson is entering his first season as the head coach at Skyline. He also is a graduate of the University of Utah.
(5 returning starters)
The Eagles will be led by star senior running back Aleck Russon (116 carries, 665, eight TDs), QB Braxton Chipman (1,244 yards, 11 TDs, 11 INTs) and wide receivers Luke Morris, who caught 45 passes for 408 yards and five touchdowns last year, and Parker Bowles, who hauled in 10 catches for 177 yards and one TD.
Chipman’s 11 INTs are a little concerning for the Eagles and Thompson, however, the growth Thompson has seen from Chipman this offseason seems to have eased his mind.
“He brings that leadership and that’s just something he’s got a gift for. And through his incredibly hard work he put in this offseason, I really think he is significantly better. He’s certainly gained a lot of command and we just expect a lot out of him. I think he’ll have a great year,” Thompson said of his gunslinger.
Meanwhile, Russon will start out of the backfield for Skyline, and with one of the biggest O-lines in its classification, he should be set to have a sensational year running the ball.
“I expect (our running game) to be pretty good. It’s a big step up from last year and from what we’ve had in the past,” Russon said. “Our O-line is looking pretty good; they’ve put in all the work, so it should be a pretty good outcome.”
Skyline’s offensive line, anchored by Machi Ubani and Austin Yapias, may not be the most experienced, but its size and strength sure seems to indicate it'll be getting the job done in the trenches this season.
Thompson remains confident that his youngsters will be able to get the job done and to give Russon the necessary room he needs to pound the ball effectively.
“We expect to make the run game the beginning of every game plan. Al (Russon) is a special kid in that he’s a very gifted ballcarrier, but he’s also very good out of the backfield and catches the ball very well,” Thompson said. “With this O-line, it could honestly be one of the biggest offensive lines we’ve ever had. They’re a little bit untested, honestly, but they’re big kids. So we definitely expect to be able to pound the ball, but the ability to throw the ball and set that up is going to be really important.”
Also, TE Riley Sharp is another weapon the Eagles plan to rely on heavily this season. Altogether, Chipman will be surrounded with nothing but explosive, quick and athletic targets to air it out to.
“Between Luke (Morris), Parker (Bowles), Colton Limpert, and Riley Sharp, a junior TE with a very bright future, we feel we’ve got guys across the field who are good targets and solid players,” Thompson said. “They are all really good and understand their jobs, and we expect them to have great years.”
(8 returning starters)
With a solid core of starters returning on the defensive side of the ball, Skyline should be a great defensive unit despite losing its four best defenders last year. Expect big things from Sam Prince (LB), along with Bowles (DB), Ubani (DL), Michael Binford (DB), Jordan Crofts (DL), Isaac Henry and Austin Yapias.
Prince led all of the returning defenders in tackles (68) last year while adding one sack as well. When Thompson said players were going to have to step up and fill holes, Prince was exactly who he was talking about.
“We expect him (Sam Prince) to improve on his good numbers last year. And if he is able to stay healthy, I don’t see any reason why he shouldn’t be able to eclipse that,” Thompson said. “But, those linebackers have got step up defensively and stop the run, so he’s got to have a good year.”
Coaches’ preseason Region 7 straw poll: Fourth
Deseret News prediction: Fifth
Bottom line: Skyline returns a good amount of starters from last year’s squad and many of its key skill players have shown significant improvement. The Eagles’ powerful offensive line could make or break the team, seeing as they are fairly untested and inexperienced as a unit. Since being eliminated from playoff contention last season, Skyline has been hard at work and has shown exactly why it had previously made the playoffs for 30 straight years: dedication and hard work. The Eagles will definitely improve from their disappointing campaign last year, however, in a talent-packed Region 7, Skyline is right on the border of making or missing the playoffs this year. It will be an intense and competitive team, but it doesn’t quite have all the weapons it needs to seriously contend for a state title just yet.
Skyline coaching history
2014 — Justin Thompson (0-0)
2012-2013 — Steve Marlowe (9-11)
1986-2011 — Roger DuPaix (246-74)
1982-1985 — Ray Groth (17-23)
1980-1981 — Gil Cordova (7-13)
1968-1979 — Ken Schmidt (108-26)
1964-1967 — H.G. Linford (31-10)
1962-1963 — Wayne Startin (7-12)
Deseret News Mr. Football recipients
2000 — Steve Tate, QB
1999 — Bo Nagahi, DB
Deseret News First Team all-staters the past 10 years
2012 — Garrett England, Specialist
2011 — Zach Russon, OL,
2010 — Nick Johnson OL
2008 — Tenny Palepoi, DL
2005 — Matt Marshall, QB
2005 — Brian Vaaulu, OL
2004 — Tony Bergstrom, OL
2004 — Will Falk, LBComment on this story
To view second team and honorable mention all-staters through the years, check out the Deseret News All-State Archives.
Ryan Love is a full-time student at the University of Utah studying communications, and has been a part-time sportswriter and scoreboarder for the Deseret News since Oct. 2012.
Follow him on Twitter @RLove7724