Note: Uintah finished with a 1-8 overall record in 2012 and was fifth in Region 10 with a 1-4 record. It did not qualify for the playoffs.
VERNAL — It’s been 11 years since Uintah’s football team won a playoff game and four since it enjoyed a winning record. Second-year coach Cody Reutzel believes the necessary steps are being taken to change all that.
“That’s one thing that’s changed a little is we are starting to get some of our good athletes in the school to come out and play, and we’re keeping the ones who are good,” said Reutzel. “You can’t coach without talent. That’s kind of the first step — make a program the kids want to be around so we can get the kids out and keep them out.”
The Cedar High graduate has brought a youthful vigor to the program, and it’s rubbing off on the players.
“There’s just a lot more buy in than there was last year. Last year I think the kids really tried, but we had a tough schedule to start and it was hard for them to keep their heads up. We just never reached our potential,” said Reutzel.
With roughly half those starters returning this year, and an influx of talented underclassmen, Uintah is poised to improve upon one-win seasons in 2011 and 2012.
A big reason for the optimism is up front. The Utes return four offensive linemen from a year ago, and they’re a big group by 3A standards. At the BYU 7-on-7 camp in June, Uintah advanced to the quarterfinals of the big man challenge before narrowly losing to Pleasant Grove, the eventual winner.
Jed Rich, Caleb Birchell, Vaisa Maile and Rowdy Farnsworth need to continue to work on their technique, particularly on pass protection. Uintah has been a running team through the years, but Reutzel wants to see more balance out of the Utes' spread formation.
He also wants a healthy quarterback.
Braxton Coonis started three of Uintah’s first four games last season, but early in a Week 4 loss to Grantsville he suffered a pretty significant concussion and didn’t play the rest of the season.
“He’s awesome, very athletic, throws the ball well,” said Reutzel. “They key is going to be keeping him healthy.”
Coonis is as excited about the season as anyone.
“Everyone is starting to buy in,” said Coonis. “This will be the year we get everything turned around and get it going on the right track.”
A much easier schedule should help. Last year Uintah opened with a 51-0 loss to Stansbury, a 34-27 loss in overtime to Green River, Wyo. and then a 54-7 loss to Pine View. Psychologically the players never really recovered.
This year the Utes open with Ogden, Green River, Wyo. and Union — three winnable games.
They’re only winnable, however, with significant defensive improvements. Uintah ranked in the bottom four in 3A last year in scoring defense at 40 points per game.
This season defensive coordinator Andy Messersmith is switching to a 4-3 defense, and Reutzel said the implementation has gone very well so far.
In the new 3AA classification, six of seven teams from the North region make the playoffs. If the Utes hope to finish in the top four to secure a home playoff game in either of the first two rounds, the revamped defense will need to show continued improvement all season.
Uintah Utes at a glance
Coach: Cody Reutzel is entering is second season after a 1-8 rookie head-coaching campaign last year. He’s a graduate of Cedar High.
(7 returning starters; Spread offense)
With four returning starting offensive linemen, and the return of a healthy Braxton Coonis at quarterback after he was limited to just three games last season, there’s no shortage of optimism in Vernal this season. Realistically, the Utes have no place to go but up after finishing in the bottom five in 3A last year with 15 points per game. The team is counting on a quartet of skill position players to help with those improvements. Dylan Hanks will see plenty of carries at running back, while Corben Evans, Patrick Massey and Hunter Conelly will be the top receiving threats.
(6 returning starters)
Depth on the defensive line and a strong linebacking corps should help Uintah be much more competitive than a year ago. It starts with Hanks, an awesome middle linebacker who has a knack for making plays instinctively. He led the team with 83 tackles last season. Rylee Domichel is a strong outside linebacker. Massey is a very good cornerback for the Utes, while Brenden Ryan and Conelly are quality safeties.
Coaches preseason 3AA North straw poll: Fifth
Deseret News 3AA North prediction: Fifth
Bottom line: After back-to-back one-win seasons, it can’t get much worse for the Utes. For all the optimism surrounding the program right now, it doesn’t mean much unless the team backs it up with some wins. If year two of the coach Reutzel era progresses as everyone hopes, there’s no reason the Utes can’t win at least four or five games. They want to win playoff games though, something the program hasn’t experienced in a decade. Considering its recent track record, that might not be realistic.
Uintah coaching history
2012-current — Cody Reutzel (1-8)
2007-2011 — Doug Harding (14-34)
2006 — Kevin Dickson (2-7)
2005 — Mike Petersen (5-5)
2003-2004 — Kevin Dickson (9-13)
1990-2002 — Curg Belcher (72-52)
1988-1989 — Jeff Gustin (2-16)
1985 -1987 — Hank Nawahine (9-19)
1977- 1984 — Curg Belcher (17-46)
1975-1976 — Phil Johnson (4-13)
1972-1974 — Gordon Olsen (4-22)
1968-1971 — Unknown (0-38)
1965-1967 — Ted Taylor (9-15)
1960-1964 — Louis Mele (18-25-2)
1955-1959 — Leo Conk (25-15)
1954 — Unknown (2-2-1)
1951-1953 — Jack Woodbury (6-10-1)
1946-1950 — Frank W. Wright
1942-1945 — LeGrand Tea
1940-1941 — Unknown
1939 — Frank W. Wright
1932-1938 — Unknown (1-4-1)
1931 — Carl Davis (4-1-1)
1929-1930 — Unknown (8-2)
Deseret News First Team all-staters the past 10 years
To view second team and honorable mention all-staters through the years, check out the Deseret News All-State Archives.
Follow Deseret News prep editor James Edward on Twitter @DNewsPreps