When their teams needed a big play, the 2015 Deseret News football MVPs were often the ones delivering them. Some did it with big running plays, others with clutch throws and one did it by punishing quarterbacks, but no matter the method they were all instrumental in leading their teams to state titles.
Here’s a closer look at all six:
Leki Fotu, Herriman
Herriman hung its hat on defense all year en route to winning the 5A state championship, and the difference maker in that defense was unquestionably Leki Fotu.
An athletic 6-foot-7, 270-pound defensive end, Fotu was a match-up nightmare for opposing offensive lineman.
“He changed games as far as the way people played us in my opinion. He shut down half the side of the field and forced people to get rid of the ball a little bit quicker,” said Herriman coach Dustin Pearce.
Fotu finished the season with 79 tackles and 7.5 sacks, great numbers for a defensive end that many teams tried to run away from. His athleticism allowed him to chase down many ball carriers and quarterbacks.
“The kid has a motor I’ve never seen in a 6-foot-7, 270-pound kid. Never took plays off. That’s just not in his make-up,” said Pearce, who raved about Fotu’s pass-rushing explosiveness.
The Ute commit made contributions offensively as well as a part-time blocking tight end in Herriman’s power rushing game. He caught only two passes all season, but one of them was a 24-yard touchdown pass in a semifinal victory over Sky View.
In that 23-7 semifinal win, led by Fotu, Herriman held Sky View to minus-22 rushing yards, the fewest in a playoff game in Utah in 15 years.
After that game, Pearce said, “99 is a beast, in case you haven’t noticed. He’s the best football player I’ve probably ever coached.”
In the state championship a week later, Fotu recorded 10 tackles as Herriman played a near-perfect game defensively to avenge a 30-0 loss to Lone Peak earlier in the season with a 17-14 win.
Jaylen Warren, East
When Jaylen Warren was a freshman at East High School, coach Brandon Matich asked him if he thought he’d eventually be as good as then-East senior Ula Tulatau — who was named Mr. Football that season.
Matich recalls Warren saying humbly, but confidently, ‘I’ll be better.’
Three years later, Warren is certainly leveling the playing field when it comes to comparing recent East fullbacks.
As a junior this year, Warren was an absolute beast for East’s triple option as he carried the ball 209 times for 1,974 yards and 19 touchdowns. He accomplished all of that in just 11 games, and easily would’ve gone over 2,000 yards had he not missed two games.
“The production he put forward is crazy. He’s a special running back and we’re lucky he’s a junior,” said Matich.
Warren had a good game against Kearns late in his sophomore season, and he used that as a springboard into his memorable junior season. Matich said it wasn’t a coincidence. He praised Warren for being a great practice player and weight room guy, and taking a lot of pride in being successful.
“The sky’s the limit. He’s still a baby, and he’s still growing,” said Matich.
That’s a scary thought because in last month’s state championship game he rushed for a career-high 231 yards against Timpview. His first three steps are the reason why, according to Matich.
“Ula was a rare combination of size, power and speed, but Jaylen has a quicker first few steps than Ula does and it really serves our offense better and makes us more dynamic,” said Matich.
Hunter Horsley, Logan
One glance at Hunter Horsley’s eyes and Mike Favero knew it was going to be a special day.
Even though Horsley had performed well for most of the season, in the warmups prior to the 3AA championship game against Dixie, Favero noticed something different.
“I’ve been around athletes a long time, but there was something in his eyes that he was going to will himself and compete at such a high level he was going to make sure we won that football game,” said Favero.
Wow, did he ever.
With the coaching staff sensing the dual-threat Horsley could do more damage with his legs against Dixie’s defense, Horsley carried the ball 37 times for a staggering 280 yards to lead the Grizzlies to the dominant 26-15 victory.
In many ways, it was just another day at the office for the senior. Horsley finished the season with 2,625 passing yards and 30 touchdowns to go along with his 1,367 rushing yards and 13 scores.
“He’s as good an athlete as we’ve had at quarterback in my time here, so he’s right up there with all the great ones that have come before him,” said Favero.
His stats might not have been as eye-popping as some of Logan’s other great QBs, but that’s only because a shoulder injury suffered at the end of last football season drastically limited his offseason football activity until shortly before this season.
Horsley only averaged 119 passing yards per game through the first five games, but in the last eight he averaged 253 yards. That production was a big reason why Logan became unbeatable in the second half of the season and ended up winning the state title.
Alex Hoffman, Juan Diego
Quarterback was a legitimate question mark for Juan Diego last summer, but the position ended up being a strength for the eventual state champs thanks to Alex Hoffman.
Juan Diego’s coaches toyed around with having Hoffman play tight end or defensive end, but it didn’t take them long to realize Hoffman’s true value was at QB.
In Juan Diego’s run-heavy offense, Hoffman passed for 1,608 yards and 12 TDs while rushing for 569 yards and 10 more TDs.
“We don’t win the state championship without him. He had some great moments throughout the year in many games,” said Juan Diego coach John Colosimo, who praised Hoffman for his clutch play in the fourth quarter this season.
Two of those late scoring drives occurred against Morgan in the 3A championship game, as Juan Diego pulled away for the 28-13 win with two touchdowns in the fourth quarter. Incredibly, Hoffman did so on a bum knee. Midway through the title game, Hoffman injured his knee but didn’t disclose it to his coaches.
He played through the pain — which was later diagnosed as a torn meniscus and PCL to lead the Soaring Eagle to their first title since 2010.
“He’s the epitome of what you want in a quarterback and he might be one of the best quarterbacks we’ve had,” said Colosimo.
Matt Roberts, Beaver
About midway through this season, Beaver coach Steve Hutchings could see his quarterback Matt Roberts take on the point guard mentality of the team. Instead of just making plays, he started understanding all the intangibles that went into helping everyone around him succeed, and the results speak for themselves.
After Beaver lost its first game of the season, Roberts proceeded to lead the team to 11 straight wins and the school’s first state title since 1990.
“Really about halfway through this season he really came into his own being a point guard and being a facilitator of our offense,” said Hutchings.
Roberts finished the year completing 65 percent of his passes for 1,625 yards and 12 touchdowns. He also led the Beavers in rushing with 1,101 yards and 21 touchdowns.
“He’s a great competitor,” said Hutchings. “He’s progressed a long way in the last couple years. He’s improved a ton. He’s made his teammates better.”
Defensively, he was no slouch at free safety either, finishing with 46 tackles and six interceptions. Beaver’s secondary was so good it allowed the front seven to take more risks and be more aggressive, which Hutchings said was a big part of the success.
Aaron Kern, Diamond Ranch
Relatively quiet in the first 45 minutes of the 1A title game, Diamond Ranch junior running back Aaron Kern delivered a championship-clinching play for the D-backs when they needed it most.
With his team trailing Kanab 20-16 with three minutes remaining, Kern ripped off a 69-yard run down to the 1-yard line. Teammate Thomas McCann punched it in one play later to secure the school’s first championship.
Kern might’ve come up one yard short on that particular play, but he scored 29 other touchdowns throughout the season for the dominant D-backs.
“We couldn’t have done what we did without this guy. Off the field, on the field, our season would’ve been different for sure,” said Diamond Ranch coach Robbie Dias.
Kern played on last year’s 1A runner-up team, and he used that experience to help motivate his new teammates so they didn’t have to experience the same heartache with another second-place finish.
Defensively, Kern was a very good safety too.
“On defense, when you watch him it’s like he’s being shot out of a gun. He sits back there in that safety spot, and he’ll usually go untouched and clean their legs out and tackle them before they can get past the line of scrimmage,” said Dias.
Deseret News prep editor and Real Salt Lake beat writer. EMAIL: [email protected]