For a region known for being among the 5A heavyweights, last year’s playoffs sure didn’t unfold how Region 3 teams would’ve liked.
Sure, fourth-seed West Jordan lost as expected to Lone Peak, but Brighton was crushed by eventual champ Herriman 49-17 in the first round while Jordan was upset 48-47 by Pleasant Grove.
Only Bingham escaped the opening round, eventually advancing to the semifinals before a lethargic showing in a 26-9 loss to Lone Peak.
“You have to be pretty talented to get up on the turf. We were good enough last year, just the injury bug hit us and unfortunately we didn’t get there,” said Brighton coach Ryan Bullett, who acknowledged injuries are the luck of the draw.
Bingham suffered a similar fate when it lost starting QB Matt Deng to a concussion early in the semifinals against Lone Peak, but coach John Lambourne said that’s not why the Miners lost. They won the state title the year before with a backup quarterback after the same QB was hurt in the semis.
Deng is back for his senior season at Bingham, and along with two other returning starters on the offensive line, 1,000-yard rusher Jahvontay Smith and a couple of receivers, the Miners have the potential to be one of the better teams in 5A.
“I think Jahvontaty is as good a running back as there is in the state, and as he goes, probably we go. And as the line goes, he goes,” said Lambourne.
Tufele compares to some of the great Bingham linemen that preceded him.
“If I did compare, I’d probably put him equal to or better than Lowell (Lotuleilei), Star (Lotuleilei), Seni (Faunuku), all these D-line guys we’ve had, and that’s before he’s played his senior year, so that should tell you something,” said Lambourne.
Tufele had 57 tackles and 10.5 sacks last season, while Tuifua had 53 tackles and 14.5 sacks.
Figuring out how to game plan against the dynamic duo will give the region’s other six offensive coordinators fits.
While Bingham is the clear-cut favorite in Region 3, the battle for second place is an intriguing one, with Brighton, Jordan and West Jordan all seemingly in the conversation.
Brighton is led by Stanford-commit Sione Lund, who’s poised for a big season if he can avoid the injury bug that plagued him last year.
“He was a little bit nicked up last year early in the year with a rib, and we didn’t play him as much on defense early and didn’t run him as much as we wanted either. This year he’s got to carry the ball 20 times a game for us to be successful,” said Bullett.
In 11 games last year, Lund never carried the ball more than 18 times. Even with his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield, 19 touches were the most he had in a single game.
Jordan is unsettled at QB with a pair of juniors in the running for the coveted ’Diggers job.
Just as important will be for Jordan’s defense to get stops, because it found out in the playoffs last year it can’t always outscore everybody.
West Jordan is an intriguing contender as the program enters its second year under coach Mike Feifu after making the playoffs with a 5-5 record last year.
"We got guys to buy into our system and what we wanted to accomplish, and I think we brought back some faith in the program that they can compete with some of the best teams in the state,” said Meifu.
The Jaguars hung tough with Brighton before losing 27-24, but they were blown out in losses to Bingham and Jordan. There’s still a lot of work left to close the gap on the Region 3 elite.
The region’s bottom three teams, Taylorsville, Cottonwood and Copper Hills, all face a daunting uphill climb to try to push into a Region 3 playoff spot.
Taylorsville seems the most qualified with the return of Dane Leituala, a QB who racked up over 3,400 yards of total offense his freshman year.
Cottonwood second-year coach Mike Tidwell and Copper Hills’ second-year coach Tavita Sagapolu hope the foundation they laid in their inaugural season leads to more competitive Friday nights this year.
Deseret News projections for Region 3 football teams in 2016
(Preseason rankings are based on coaches’ votes)
1. BINGHAM: With six offensive returning starters, including 1,000-yard rusher Jahvontay Smith, the Miners are poised for a big season. Matt Deng is a returning starter at QB, while Cole Clemens and Tavian Myers are returning O-line starters. Defensively, Bingham returns two of the best linemen in the state with Jay Tufele and Langi Tuifua. Making that line even stronger will be new starters Amanaki Angilau and Ben Malohi. Safeties Tongi Langi and Daniel Loua anchor the secondary. 2015 RECORD: 11-2 PLAYOFFS: Lost to Lone Peak 26-9 in 5A semifinals.
2. JORDAN: QBs at Jordan are known for putting up big numbers, and the reins will fall to either Crew Wakely or Isaiah Roach. Whoever gets the nod will have a great receiver to throw to. Spencer Curtis caught 92 passes for 1,555 yards and 12 TDs last season. Isiah Jackson is another excellent target who is coming off a 705-yard season. Heneli Avendando and Collin Larsen will be key two-way starters in the trenches. Linebacker Beau McRae is back after finishing second on the team in tackles. 2015 RECORD: 8-3. PLAYOFFS: Lost to Pleasant Grove 48-47 in 5A first round.
3. BRIGHTON: Injuries left the Bengals unsettled at quarterback and running back last season, but it could be a strength if key players avoid the injury bug. Andrew Covey begins the season as the No. 1 QB after being thrust into that position last year, while Stanford commit Sione Lund is poised for a great season at running back and linebacker. Kimball Reese is another returning starter in the backfield. Both will benefit from returning O-line starters Josh Davis, Zach Lowry and Max Miner. Defensively, Lund and Reece will anchor the linebacker core, but the defensive line will be all new starters. 2015 RECORD: 7-4. PLAYOFFS: Lost to Herriman 49-17 in 5A first round.
4. WEST JORDAN: Second-year coach Mike Feifu has a great collection of returning starters to work with as the Jaguars hope to make a move up the Region 3 standings. Among them is running back Michael Ponce, who rushed for 504 yards last year. QB Dylan Krans is also returning. Fitu Kaivelata, Austin Leausa and Noah Kinikini return on the O-line. The defense is led by highly recruited defensive end Alden Tofa. A pair of linebackers are back from last year, Trace Birch and Skyler Caldwell. 2015 RECORD: 5-5. PLAYOFFS: Lost to Lone Peak 53-6 in 5A first round.
5. TAYLORSVILLE: Pala Vaitu’u and Rod Wells will serve as co-head coaches this season . They’ll benefit from the return of sophomore QB Dane Leituala, who was one of the most dynamic players in 5A last year. He rushed for 1,708 yards and passed for 1,649, even though his accuracy needs improvement. He has three Offensive linemen returning in front of him, Ewan Tuinei, TJ Hazel and Tristin Thurman. The defense is led by returning D-linemen starters TJ Hazel and Josh Sterzer and returning linebacker Dylan Apelu. 2015 RECORD: 3-7. PLAYOFFS: Did not qualify.
6. COTTONWOOD: The numbers are low, but the Colts have considerable talent to work with. Leading the way defensively is highly recruited defensive lineman Tennessee Pututau. Tonga Kichiro (DT) and Damien Sio (LB) are also returning starters defensively. A young but experienced offensive line returns four starters, Kichiro, Clayton Kristensen, Samuel Duran and Alex Hart. Sio returns at running back after leading the team in rushing in 2015, while QB Gabriel Hagerman is also back after his season was cut short with a broken leg in Week 3. 2015 RECORD: 2-8. PLAYOFFS: Did not qualify.
7. COPPER HILLS: The Grizzlies are optimistic that a strong offseason of weight lifting and an influx of new assistant coaches will lead to better results in the second season under coach Tavita Sagapolu. Copper Hills returns its top two ball carriers from last year, Winston Reid and Justice Salisbury. Sophomore Logan Sagapolu will anchor both the offensive and defensive line. Zachariah Kumpin is a returning starter on both sides of the ball, but he’s switching positions to offensive line and defensive line. Zach Fratto is another key defensive lineman. 2015 RECORD: 0-10. PLAYOFFS: Did not qualify.
James Edward is the Deseret News prep editor and Real Salt Lake beat writer. EMAIL: [email protected]