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Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Juan Diego/Judge Memorial in the 3A football semifinal game in Salt Lake City, Utah, Friday, Nov. 12, 2010. Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
We have high expectations for all our returning starters. Last year left a bad taste in our mouth. —Carbon coach Jeff Blanc

FRIDAY: 3AA South Preview

Thanks to the UHSAA's latest realignment, there’s a buzz surrounding numerous football programs around the state that’s been missing for a while.

Morgan hasn’t advanced to the state semifinals since 2008, but in the smaller 3A classification the Trojans have been tabbed the group's preseason No. 1.

Grantsville (2005) and Union (2007) have even longer semifinal droughts, but they head into the 2013 season knowing anything is possible now that the larger 3A schools are no longer in the playoff equation.

“I think we have as good of athletes as the other teams. We just don’t usually have the depth. This will even things out. I don’t think it will be any easier,” said Union coach Matt Labrum.

That’s especially the case in the 3A North region, a league where everyone has ample experience returning.

Judge, which last appeared in the semifinals in 2010, returns nine starters on offense and eight on defense. Grantsville returns eight starters from last season’s stellar defense. Preseason favorite Morgan returns six starters from a team that advanced to the 3A quarterfinals last year.

While Morgan, Judge and Grantsville enter the season with loftier expectations, Emery and Union are certainly capable of crashing the top three, and even Carbon is capable of making some noise with more than half of last year’s starters returning and a new offense.

“We have high expectations for all our returning starters. Last year left a bad taste in our mouth,” said Carbon coach Jeff Blanc, whose team went 1-9. “Collectively we are excited about this upcoming season. If we can stay injury-free, I think that we’re going to be competitive in football games. I think we will be battling for a playoff spot this year.”

Carbon hasn’t qualified for the playoffs since 2000.

Morgan, on the other hand, has been a perennial playoff team the past decade, and that tradition is a big reason the Trojans were voted by coaches as the region favorite. There are question marks though, particularly on the offensive line with only one returning starter.

“We’re going to spend most of our fall to get our linemen aligned out. In the past we’ve been deep for us as far as linemen goes, but we have one returning starting lineman,” said Morgan coach Kovi Christiansen.

Grantsville is in a similar situation. It returns plenty of skill-position players and the bulk of last year’s strong defense, but all five linemen will be varsity newcomers.

“Even though we don’t have a ton of experience in that category, we have tons to choose from. Our offensive line group in general is the biggest as far as talent and numbers that I’ve had since being at Grantsville. We’re growing some big boys finally. We have a lot to choose from; it’s just finding the best five that work together and giving them experience in a hurry,” said Grantsville coach Tony Cloward.

Experience on the line won’t be an issue for Emery, which returns all five starters from an offense that averaged 35 ppg in 2A last season. This year, however, the Spartans are making the jump to 3A, and coach Jim Jones said the defense needs to be much-improved if his team hope to compete.

“We had a hard time stopping some of the better teams physically, but I think the added year of maturity with these kids I’m banking on to be the difference,” said Jones.

When it’s all said and done, the 3A North champion will likely head into the playoffs this October as the team to beat. It will certainly be uncharted territory, but one the schools all embrace in the new classification.

Deseret News projections for 3A North football teams in 2013

(Preseason rankings are based on coaches’ votes)

1. MORGAN: Kyle Stapley is a two-year starter on the offensive line, but he’ll be surrounded by varsity rookies as Morgan breaks in four new starters around him. How quickly the new unit jells may ultimately determine if Morgan stays at No. 1 throughout the season. Kade Carrigan is back at fullback, while Matt Murdock will see an increased workload in the backfield as well. Ben Saunders is a returning starter at quarterback. Defensively, Morgan returns four of its leading tacklers from a year ago, led by Carrigan and Christian Elton. 2012 RECORD: 7-5. PLAYOFFS: Lost to Spanish Fork in quarterfinals.

2. JUDGE: After losing to Morgan in the first round of the 3A playoffs last year, Judge has worked tirelessly this offseason in hopes of making more noise in the playoffs. With nine returning starters on offense and eight on defense, Judge is certainly capable of big things. Kaden Ellis is a returning starter at QB after leading the team in rushing (858 yards) and passing (826 yards). Running backs Mark and Max Barnett are also back after combining for 754 rushing yards and three TDs. Defensively, linebackers Braden Pelly and Max Barnett will be key, while defensive backs Sean McMininee and Michael Kearns begin the year with high expectations. 2012 RECORD: 5-6. PLAYOFFS: Lost to Morgan in first round.

3. GRANTSVILLE: Defense carried the Cowboys last year, and that will again be the case with eight starters returning from that top five scoring defense. Anchoring the group is Ky Fisher and Noah Mecham at linebacker. Coach Tony Cloward expects Jake Riding and Devin Adams to wreak havoc from their tackle positions too. Offensively all five offensive linemen will be new, but Nephi Meono is back at QB, while fullback Fisher is also back after racking up 16 TDs a year ago. The coaching staff is also counting on big things from Alec Anderson, Wyatt Smith and Alex Meono in the backfield. 2012 RECORD: 6-5. PLAYOFFS: Lost to Juan Diego in first round.

4. UNION: A year after averaging only 17 ppg, Union is banking on quality skill-position players and a switch to the run-and-shoot offense to improve that efficiency. Jordan Gurr is the lone returning offensive linemen, having started every game at center as a sophomore. Workhorse back Gavin Nielsen is back after leading the team in rushing yards last season, while Nic Smith also returns after leading the team with seven TDs in just five games. Defensively coach Matt Labrum is challenging his defense to force more turnovers, and a lot of that responsibility falls on defensive linemen Gurr and Paul Kaufusi. 2012 RECORD: 5-6. PLAYOFFS: Lost to Stansbury in first round.

5. EMERY: Any coach would be thrilled to have five returning starters on the offensive line, and that’s exactly what Emery has in 2013. Duncan Thomas and Zac West are the leaders of the group, while Derrick Dawes, Slayde Childs and Carson Healy are all really solid too. The Spartans averaged 35 points behind that offensive line last year, and new quarterback Bailey Faimalo hopes to continue that productivity this season. Emery must replace the bulk of its linebacking corps from a year ago, but with Dawes and Marco Mota, it has a good foundation to build from. 2012 RECORD: 7-4. PLAYOFFS: Lost to San Juan in 2A quarterfinals.

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6. CARBON: The Dinos are switching from a spread offense to a traditional offense, which coach Jeff Blanc believes more suits his team. Carbon returns seven starters on offense, which should help quarterback Jarod Lessar ease into his role as the new starter. The team’s leading rusher and receiver from a year ago graduated, but Zac Hathaway and Dominic Rondinelli will be counted on to fill that void. Defensively, Carbon just wasn’t that good last year, but with six returning starters there’s hope for improvement with Dallyn Mower, Kyle Barrett and Garrett Blanc among the defensive leaders. 2012 RECORD: 1-9. PLAYOFFS: Did not qualify.