Running backs dominated the headlines during the 2016 high school football season, so it’s only appropriate they dominate the postseason awards.
All six Deseret News MVPs played running back at some point this season, and even though many also made contributions elsewhere on the field, what they did with the ball in their hands ultimately separated them from their peers.
Daniel Loua, Bingham
Through the first 12 weeks of the high school football season, Bingham senior Daniel Loua had carried the ball a mere 20 times for 194 yards and four touchdowns. Each of those carries was simply to prepare for the “what-if” scenario coaches dread.
If Bingham star running back Jahvontay Smith ever went down with an injury, over the summer Loua established himself as the first-choice replacement.
The problem was, Loua was the starting safety at a program that platoons its players. He was groomed nonetheless for that “what-if” scenario.
“To have a guy ready when you have a need, you have to have done something in advance,” said Bingham coach John Lambourne. “He alternated at practice almost every other day (between offense and defense), and even within practices we’d have him do some offensive stuff and defensive stuff each day.”
Despite splitting time in practice, it never negatively impacted Loua’s dominance defensively. He led the team in tackles with 76, a rarity according to Lambourne for a safety to lead Bingham in that stat category.
Late in the season, the need arose for Loua to make larger contributions at running back when Smith went down with an injury, and he answered the call in a big way.
In Bingham’s 35-12 semifinal victory over Fremont, Loua carried the ball 11 times for 132 yards and two touchdowns. Defensively, he still led the Miners in tackles with nine.
In the championship game against Lone Peak, he had nine carries for 60 yards, including the go-ahead 9-yard touchdown run late in the third quarter as Bingham eventually prevailed 17-10.
“We knew all along that Daniel Loua had some special abilities, it was nice to see him have that success and be a little more publicly recognized, which oftentimes happens when you’re scoring touchdowns as opposed when you’re just playing on the defensive side,” said Lambourne.
Loua’s body of work defensively by itself made him one of the top players in 5A as he led Bingham in tackles and interceptions. His late offensive contributions helped push his team over the top.
“I’m real proud of the kid, it’s not easy to do what we were asking him to do. You don’t see a lot of it out of us or some of the other teams, but he stepped up to it and did great,” said Lambourne.
Josh Davis, Alta
There was a unique excitement on Alta’s sideline every Friday night this season. From coaches to players to fans, there was great anxiousness as everyone waited to see what running back Josh Davis would do next.
“Every game was filled with excitement,” said Alta coach Alema Te’o.
Whether it was his 99-yard kickoff return against Highland in the quarterfinals, one of his eight touchdown runs of over 50 yards, or any of his other 25 touchdowns, whenever Davis touched the ball this season great things were bound to happen.
“Josh is a once-in-a-career player. I’ll never coach another player like Josh Davis. I’ll probably have other running backs be effective and do great things for us, but a kid like him is hard to come by,” said Te’o.
Davis finished the season with 269 carries for 2,645 yards and 28 touchdowns, in addition to his 30 receptions for 412 yards and three touchdowns. He added three special teams touchdowns and finished with 3,836 all-purpose yards, a new state record.
His 2,645 rushing yards is the second-best season in state history, second only to Jaylen Warren’s 3,099 yards at East this season. Both eclipsed the state record of 2,561 yards set by Beaver’s Kelly Smith back in 1979.
Te’o said Davis’ determination was unlike anything he’s ever seen from a player.
“The kid was bound and determined to get the first down, to make the catch, to be the guy that makes that play. There was no doubt in our mind that when things were going bad, Josh Davis was the answer,” said Te’o.
“He was obviously a key part of our offense, but because of what he could do he set up so much more for our passing game,” said Te’o.
Davis ends his career as the third-leading rusher in state history with 5,290 career rushing yards and third in career all-purpose yards with 8,325.
Nephi Sewell, Desert Hills
One of the lasting images of the 2016 high school football season will be the tears streaming down Nephi Sewell’s face at Rice-Eccles Stadium as he tried to put into words what Desert Hills’ 3AA championship meant to him.
No words were really necessary.
Sixteen months earlier he laid in a hospital bed after two of his vertebraes had been fused together — the result of a freak football injury — pondering his future in the sport he loved.
He missed his entire junior season, but he had the drive and determination to get healthy for his 2016 season, and he was an unstoppable force for the Thunder.
“I’ve never seen in all my life, playing football my whole life even at the collegiate level, I’ve never seen anyone put in so much into each play as he does, it overwhelms me as a coach to have a player who’s willing to sacrifice and put in so much for the team. It’s a pretty incredible story,” said Desert Hills coach Carl Franke.
Sewell finished the season with 1,262 yards and 14 touchdowns on 114 carries, a staggering 11.1 yards per carry.
“He rarely ever worries about the first defender to him, he feels like he can either stiff-arm him and run through that arm tackle and he’s already looking to set up the next block for him. It’s uncanny the way he runs the football,” said Franke.
In the championship game against Pine View, he rushed for 247 yards and two touchdowns on 24 carries.
“He’s such a freak athlete, between speed, size, power, his ability to see the field and use defenders’ leverage and momentum against them,” said Franke.
Sewell projects as a defensive back at the next level, and at the moment he has offers from Weber State, Southern Utah, Washington State and Nevada. His neck injury, one similar to what Peyton Manning recovered from to play for the Broncos, has scared many colleges away from recruiting Sewell, but Franke doesn’t doubt for a second that Sewell has a bright future.
“Whoever get Nephi Sewell is going to get someone who’s special. Whether he’s on the field every down or not, you’re going to get a kid in the locker room, in the classroom, in the community that everybody looks up to and everybody will follow because he does all the right things and he’s so humble,” said Franke.
Ryan Baker, Juan Diego
Through the first five games of the 2016 season, Juan Diego senior running back Ryan Baker had been rather ho-hum with 342 rushing yards and three touchdowns.
His production over the next six games, however, would ultimately definite Juan Diego’s season.
In those final six games — all Juan Diego wins — Baker rushed for 801 yards and racked up a whopping 13 touchdowns.
“He’s been an outstanding player for us, been a three-year starter in the backfield, he’s been a stalwart back there,” said Juan Diego coach John Colosimo.
In Juan Diego’s blowout victory over Juab in the semifinals, Baker carried the ball 15 times for 154 yards and four touchdowns. A week later in the championship game against Delta, he tied a career high with 25 carries, finishing with 160 yards and a touchdown.
“He knew his steps very well, he knew where to hit, I think he was the kid that got the most out of whatever the offensive line gave us, and he would always get yards after hits,” said Colosimo. “He was able to maximize everything he could get whenever he carried the ball.”
He finished his senior season with 1,143 yards and 16 touchdowns, almost identical to the 1,149 yards and 13 TDs he racked up during his junior season.
Baker was a quiet, humble, unassuming football player, and that demeanor had a big influence on his teammates.
“If you walked in school and saw him walking by, you would never think there’s a really good football player. He doesn’t beat his chest, and I think the kids look up to him for that,” said Colosimo.
Dillon Smith, Beaver
When Jordan Hardy decided to play football at Beaver because the sport wasn’t offered at his home high school in Panguitch, the way Dillon Smith handled the situation helped pave the way for a repeat championship season for the Beavers.
“This was Dillon’s team, but he fully welcomed Jordan and he just wanted us to be better, and he helped him along the way and was his biggest fan so to speak,” said Beaver coach Randy Hunter.
Smith and Hardy both had terrific seasons, and the camaraderie that Smith fostered was a big reason why.
“He’s really an All-American kid. He’s a 4.0 student, he’s got a 28 act, he’s our student body president and he’s genuinely what you would call a perfect kid. He has no animosity in his body, and that was evident with Jordan Hardy coming this year,” said Hunter.
Offensively, Smith racked up 1,176 yards and 20 touchdowns this season, including tying the state record with five rushing touchdowns in a championship game.
He also racked up 296 receiving yards and six touchdowns. He was also Beaver’s best down-blocker, and certain running plays he was downfield plowing the way for his teammates.
Defensively, Smith was just as dominant at outside linebacker, a position he projects to at the next level as schools like Southern Utah, Weber State and Utah State have shown recruiting interest throughout the season.
He finished third on the team with 73 tackles.
“Offenses would not run the ball his way very often. We would actually get a short side of the field a lot because they we would end up running one way and staying on that side and not wanting to run to the field at him,” said Hunter.
Steven Skewes, Duchesne
Throughout the spring and summer, Duchesne senior Steven Skewes was groomed to take over at quarterback.
It’s a position he hadn’t played since eighth grade, so he worked extra hard to prepare for the nuances of the switch from fullback. Shortly before the season though, the coaching staff scrapped those plans.
“As the season started we decided he’d be better as a fullback,” said Duchesne coach Jerry Cowan. “He kind of took one for the team for us, and that made us better. He was more important for us as a running back.”
Skewes finished the season with 827 rushing yards and eight touchdowns, and he really helped strengthen the depth of a position the coaching staff was a bit worried about.
“He saw the whole and had good vision, but more importantly he was tough and ran hard,” said Cowan.
His greatest asset though for the 1A champs was his presence defensively at linebacker. Not only did he lead the team in tackles with 97, he was the heart of the stingiest defense in 1A.
“He’s never the fastest guy, but he’s always the first to the ball. He has an instinct you can’t coach. You can act like you can coach it, but you can’t. He’s really selfish when it comes to tackling. He’s the best we’ve had at it for a long time,” said Cowan.
Skewes also led Duchesne in tackles as a junior.
“Where’s he’s come from since his freshman year to now, he was not very athletic and didn’t have a lot going for him as a freshman, and to see where he is now just shows the benefits of keep working hard,” said Cowan.