Note: Syracuse finished with a 7-4 overall record in 2016 and tied for first in Region 2 with a 4-2 record. It lost to American Fork 31-13 in the 5A quarterfinals.
SYRACUSE — For the first time in school history, there's been a changing of the guard on the football sidelines at Syracuse High School.
But just because the Titans have a new head coach in Mike Knight, there are some things that'll remain very much the same in this proud program.
Things like playing a tough, hard-nosed brand of football, winning a lot of games and going to the state playoffs every year.
Knight takes over from Russ Jones, who retired last November after serving as the only head football coach the school has ever had.
Knight, then, becomes just the second head man in Syracuse's school 10-year existence but, having spent the past nine seasons on Jones' staff, he expects it will pretty much be business as usual for the Titans' program.
After all, it's been a highly successful business year in and year out, with a terrific run of nine consecutive state playoff berths, including a pair of appearances in the semifinals plus a spot in the state finals, and a couple of region championships along the way as well.
"I feel pretty good about things," Knight said. "I feel like, for the most part, we've had good consistency out here. We started back in 2008 and then every year since then I feel like we've had a good group of kids. I just hope all of our success hasn't come and gone.
"We've got a lot of good kids out here and we've had really good coaches in the building, and that ultimately was because of Russ; he hired a bunch of us when the school opened and he said, 'I've gotta get good coaches, guys that coach multiple sports and invest in the school, invest in the building, and invest in the program.'
"He did a good job of bringing us here and allowing us to coach. If it wasn't for Russ Jones, I wouldn't be here," Knight said. "So we've had that success and it's almost like it's expected — people expect it, which are good expectations to have."
Despite all of their past success, coach Knight isn't taking anything for granted. He knows that he, his coaching staff and the players in the program must continue to work hard and strive for excellence if they want to keep things rolling at Syracuse.
"I feel pretty good about things," he said. "I've known this team for nine years, I know these kids, and I feel good about our numbers and the offseason strength and conditioning program that we've implemented. And we'll find out. It's kind of a plan we've had in place over the years."
There will be some subtle changes in the program, to be sure, but Knight and the Titans believe in that wise old adage about "if it ain't broke, don't fix it," so they'll keep many of the same things in place that have worked so well for this west Davis County school for so long.
"I've learned a lot from Russ and I have a lot of good help, so I'm not going to totally change everything," Knight said. "We're just kinda painting the car, we're not really putting a new engine in it or anything like that. There's no need to try and reinvent the wheel here.
"I'm gonna try to put my touch on it, and I've tried to do that already but, for the most part, we've got this thing rolling. So let's just kinda keep it rolling."
Coach Knight has developed close, personal relationships with the rest of his coaching staff, and the camaraderie that they share will no doubt make the transition much smoother.
He's delighted to be here and hopes to stay here for the long haul.
"It's a good opportunity and my goal is to stay here as long as I possibly can," he said. "I'm a Titan now. I've been here nine years, and I'm a Titan.
"We've got a lot of good coaches in the building that are very, very good coaches. We have four guys on the staff that played here for us. They learned those valuable life lessons here where they wanted to come back and teach here and coach here, give something back to the school and the program. They've taken pride in this program and they enjoy being around these kids and have a lot of energy for the things they're passionate about.
"There's nothing like high school football, there really isn't anything like it, just the feeling of what these kids go through and the emotion that they feel," Knight said. "Like I told the kids the other day, we're only guaranteed, for us, nine opportunities. Think about all the things we've done for nine 48-minute games, all the stuff that you do for nine chances to define yourself as a football team.
"So it is challenging. They're so in the moment, teenagers are, and they're worried about right now. So it's challenging to get them to see the bigger picture after football. But if you can do that, that is the rewarding part of it."
A lot of people have picked Syracuse to be the top dog in a realigned Region 1 that has sent the Titans, along with Davis and Layton, from the old 5A Region 2 into the newly formed seven-team 6A league along with fellow Davis County schools Clearfield and Northridge, and Weber County schools Fremont and Weber.
"I don't love that, I'm gonna be honest, especially the first year," Knight said of his team being picked to win the region title. "We're gonna do our deal and we're gonna focus on us, and our goal each week is to get better and focus on what we control.
"I know it sounds cliche, but that's how it has to go to have success."
Coach Knight feels like the lofty preseason predictions placed on the Titans, who are ranked No. 10 overall in the D-News' statewide poll, are based as much on last year's team, tradition and past performances as they are anything else.
"I told our kids the other day, 'I want you guys to know that was (last year's senior stars) NJ Mo'o and Brennon Jones and Nate Marin and Zach Carter that got us ranked 10th in the state," he said. "This is our chance to write our own Syracuse story."
Knight sees the new Region 1 shaping up as one heck of a competitive league.
"I love our league, I love being back in this league," he said. "We've had some good games with Fremont over the years, and I really respect all the coaches in this league. I know what they put into it, and a lot of people at the southern schools just think we're a nice, cute football league that doesn't compete at the state level.
"We were the only team to win a playoff game from our region the last two years, so maybe they have some validity to their point.
"But we have tough kids up in this area, and we have great coaching," Knight said. "I think these guys up here play with chips on their shoulders because it's Northern Utah, and they get tired of hearing about the teams from Salt Lake City and Utah County. I think everybody up here does a heck of a job preparing their kids week to week."
Knight is one of four new head coaches in Region 1, joined by Ross Arnold at Fremont, Braden Mitchell at Northridge and Mitch Arquette at Davis.
"That's crazy that there's four new coaches in the same region," Knight said, pointing out that he, Arnold and Mitchell have been longtime assistants at their respective schools, while Arquette spent several seasons on the Davis staff as well before coaching high school ball last year in Texas.
He looks at Weber High, coached by his good friend and former college teammate Matt Hammer, as possibly the team to beat in Region 1 this season.
"I have a ton of respect for Matt and what he does," Knight said. "Weber's gonna have a special group. Not a lot of people are talking about them, but that's a team you've got to watch out for. They might have a pretty good group and, if I'm gonna pick a team, I probably would pick Weber. I know Matt so well and know what he can do as a coach.
"Clearfield won those two games at the end of the season last year, and they're gonna be better. Davis, we've only gotten them twice in all the years we've played them. They've had our number and we've lost some close ones to them. And we know Fremont's always tough.
"So week to week, it's gonna be really, really competitive, it really is. Someone's gotta be picked first and someone's gotta be picked last, but nobody really knows," he said. "I think those rankings are based on past success."
Knight said it's good to see schools like Weber and Clearfield, who don't generally grab a lot of headlines during football season, receive some recognition this year.
"It's kinda nice to see schools that haven't been talked about get it done," he said. "Everybody's talking about us, and I obviously want success for us. I mean, our goal is to win every football game that we play in — that's the goal. But if I was to pick a squad, I would pick Weber.
"We saw Layton, Fremont and Northridge at camp, and they each did some good things.
"So it could be splitting hairs when we get down to it, it really could," Knight said. "Each week is gonna be tough, it's gonna be close, and everybody's got to stay healthy. In high school, if you lose a dude, you really lost a dude, like you're in trouble. So we all gotta stay healthy and you want everybody's best shot. We've had some special, special games out here, and we're hoping there's more of them to come."
With what we've seen out of this program for the past decade, that seems to be a certainty.
Syracuse Titans at a glance
Coach: Mike Knight takes over for his first year as the Syracuse head coach after spending the previous nine years as an assistant on the Titans' staff. This is his first head coaching job. He is a graduate of Murray High School and Southern Utah University.
Syracuse Offensive Snapshot
Offensive coordinator: Jared Martin (10th year at the school)
2016 offensive production: 24.8 ppg (13th in 5A)
— 5 returning starters
— Multiple formations
Key offensive returning starters
— Ty Metcalfe (QB)
Last year as a junior, Metcalfe threw for 1,960 yards and 20 touchdowns with just 6 interceptions. He was also the Titans' leading rusher with 427 yards on 157 carries with 3 TDs.
— Alex Forbush (RB)
In 2016, Forbush had 399 yards rushing on 105 carries and scored 5 touchdowns. He also caught 17 passes for 144 yards and another score.
Returning offensive starters
Ty Metcalfe (QB)
Alex Forbush (RB)
Austin Kirkman (TE/RB/WB)
Wyatt Bowles (OL)
Duncen Millerbeg (OL)
Offensive newcomers to watch
Tucker Bartels (RB)
Cole Thompson (WR)
Nate Noble (OG)
Scott Davies (WR)
Ty Burke (Slot)
Knight's comments on the strengths of quarterback Ty Metcalfe:
"He's got so much experience. His sophomore year, Chase Bauerle got hurt early in the year — broke his ankle and ended up playing that whole game on a broken ankle — and then the next week we had to play Ty because we felt Ty was the guy. So he really has improved not only as a quarterback but as a leader for the team.
"And he's a great kid and he's done a really good job of improving his technique over the last year. We gave him a few things, and he knew that he had a few things he had to work on, and I really feel like after seeing him in our camp and what he's done in the offseason, I've seen that he has made an effort to improve on those things technically, and he has. So yeah, he's our guy, he's our guy. And ultimately the amount of experience that he has in our program is irreplaceable."
Knights comments on how players have stepped in to bolster the Titans' offense following the loss of last year's stars:
"Our skill guys, we had some good players last year. NJ Mo'o, Brennon Jones, those guys were really good players and we were a little concerned about our kids coming back in those positions for this year because they didn't really get to play because those guys were so good.
"But after seeing what those guys have done in camp in the off season, we're excited to see what they can do. It's going to be a good transition for them. We have a few kids that have really done some good things in those positions, which is encouraging.
"Up front I have Wyatt Bowles and Duncen Millberg, and they've both started since they were sophomores. Wyatt's committed to play at Nevada, so he's gonna be a guy that'll go both ways for us. Duncen will start on offense and rotate in on 'D,' but those two guys there are the strength of the guys up front for sure.
"Forbush started as a linebacker as a sophomore, and he's gotta stay healthy. Between those three — Alex, Austin and Tucker Bartels — they'll get the majority of touches at running back. Austin, Alex and Tucker won't come off the field much for us this year."
Keys for offensive success in 2017:
Metcalfe is a special player with a ton of experience, and he's a proven performer at running the Titans' show on offense. And in the three-headed monster of Forbush, Kirkman and Bartels, the running game should be in great shape, too. With some size and strength up front on the O-line and some solid receiving threats, Syracuse should have no problem moving the ball and putting plenty of points up on the scoreboard this season
Syracuse Defensive Snapshot
Defensive coordinator: Trevor Thomas (2nd year at the school)
2016 defensive production: 22.3 ppg (12th in 5A)
4 returning starters
Key defensive returning starters
— Tucker Bartels (LB)
Bartels piled up a whopping 117 tackles last season to lead the entire team as a junior, and the linebacker also had 2.5 sacks and an interception.
— Austin Kirkman (LB)
As a junior in 2016, Kirkman compiled 66 tackles, the second-most on the squad, from his linebacker position.
Forbush had 43 tackles last year as a junior, joining Bartels and Kirkman to form a formidable linebacking corps who all return this season.
— Garrett Burke (S)
Burke came up with 31 tackles and 3 interceptions last season as a junior safety.
Returning defensive starters
Tucker Bartels (LB)
Alex Forbush (LB)
Austin Kirkman (LB)
Garrett Burke (S)
Defensive newcomers to watch
Wyatt Bowles (DL)
Nate Noble (DL)
Kaden Mueller (CB)
Duncen Millerberg (DL)
Dylan Wistisen (DL)
Ty Burke (S)
Knight's comments on his linebacking corps and other strengths of the defense:
"The strength of our defense is our linebackers, for sure, just because they (Forbush, Kirkman and Bartels) are the ones that have all the experience and they are the leaders on the team in general. They're our dudes, and they're good. We are expecting those guys to make plays, and the nice thing is they're the leaders of the team. Kinda how they go, we're gonna go.
"We're expecting Garrett Burke to be a player, Wyatt Bowles will start on the D-line, and Dylan Wistisen, a junior, is a big strong kid and a guy we expect to come in and play right away. He got some reps last year, especially in the playoff games, so he got baptized by fire real quick. And he loves the weight room, absolutely loves it, that's his thing. He'll play D-tackle for us.
"We've got another kid that I think's gonna be a really special player that will start at safety for us as a sophomore — Ty Burke, Garrett's brother. It's kinda cool for them to be able to do that, and Ty will play some inside slot receiver for us, too. Kaden Mueller, a senior wide receiver and cornerback, is another good one."
Keys for defensive success in 2017: Forbush, Kirkman and Bartels might sound like a law firm, but that trio of linebackers will serve as the backbone of the Titans' always-tough defensive unit. With the Burke brothers on the back end at safety along with Mueller at cornerback, and a D-line led by Bowles, Nate Noble, Duncen Millerberg and Dylan Wistisen, the Syracuse defense looks like it could be downright stingy and pave the way for another region title this season.
Coaches preseason Region 1 straw poll: First
Deseret News Region 1 prediction: Second
Key region game: at Weber, Sept. 22 (Week 6)
Bottom line: In Metcalfe and Co., the Titans have plenty of offensive firepower to keep pressure on opposing defenses. And with their talented returning trio of starting linebackers leading the way, and an impressive supporting cast, the Titans' defense will again be difficult to score against or move the ball on. Most preseason experts are picking Syracuse to be the team to beat in the new-look Region 1, and barring injuries or some massive upsets along the way, it'll be mighty tough for any team to shove the Titans out of the way of the top spot when it's all said and done.
Aug. 18 — at Roy, 7 p.m.
Aug. 25 — JORDAN, 7 p.m.
Sept. 1 — NORTHRIDGE, 7 p.m.
Sept. 8 — BOUNTIFUL, 7 p.m.
Sept. 15 — LAYTON, 7 p.m.
Sept. 22 — at Weber, 7 p.m.
Sept. 29 — FREMONT, 7 p.m.
Oct. 6 — at Clearfield, 7 p.m.
Oct. 13 — at Davis, 7 p.m.
Oct. 20 — BYE
Felt’s Facts for Syracuse High School
All-time record: 71-39 (10 years)
Region championships: 2 (2012, 2016 co)
Playoff appearances: 9
Current playoff appearance streak: 9 (2008-2016)
All-time playoff record: 9-9
State championships: 0
State championship record: 0-1
Most played rivalry: 8 meetings with Fremont dating back to 2007.
Felt’s Factoid(s): Syracuse boasts two of Utah’s most prolific career field goal kickers. Romney Harker (25 FGs, 2013-14) and Josh Kealamaia (made 21 during 2008-09) both rank in the top-10 all-time. The Titans performed the second-biggest turnaround in Utah prep football, going from 0-10 in 2007 to 10-3 in 2008.
2016 — 7-4 (4-2 in Region 2 – 5A Quarterfinals)
2015 — 4-6 (3-3 in Region 2 – 5A First round)
2014 — 7-3 (4-2 in Region 1 – 5A First round)
2013 — 8-2 (5-1 in Region 1 – 5A First round)
2012 — 12-1 (5-0 in Region 1 – 5A Runner-up)
Syracuse coaching history
2007-current — Russ Jones (71-39)
Deseret News First Team All-Staters the past 10 years
2016 — Brennon Jones, CB
2013 — Romney Harker, K
2013 — Kavika Fonua, Spec.
2012 — Brock Anderson, QB
2012 — Cardon Malan, DL
2012 —Kavika Fonua, DB
2012 — Diante Mitchell, DB
2011 — Corey Cook, OL,
2011 — Hunter Dimick, DL
2011 — Brock Anderson, K
2010 — Hunter Dimick, DL
2009 — Josh Gooch, LB
2009 — Mitch Tulane, DB
2008 — T.J. Blickfeldt, DB
2008 — Josh Kealamakia, K
To view second team and honorable mention all-staters through the years, check out the Deseret News All-State Archives.