I started getting reps, and every day after school, we’d meet and go over plays. Just so I felt comfortable. I just hadn’t done it for a while —Alex Palmer
LEHI – Payton Ainsworth thought the only way he’d be scoring touchdowns this season is if he were able to intercept the football.
The Skyridge junior planned to focus on the defensive side of the ball after a sophomore season where he split time between linebacker and running back.
But five games into the season, injuries changed everything for the Falcons, who will take on their crosstown rival Lehi in the 5A state championship game Friday.
The Falcons' ground game was supposed to feature senior Josh Hadfield and junior Ma’a Notoa. A captain and the designated starter, Hadfield broke his foot in the first game of the season.
“Notoa moved into the starting role, taking the bulk of the carries,” said head coach John Lehman. “At Viewmont, he tore his ACL.”
Coaches moved senior Alex Palmer, who’d been playing slot receiver and cornerback, into the running back position for the fourth game of the season. A game later, Palmer broke his hand, and that is when coaches turned to Ainsworth.
An assistant coach delivered the news just before Skyridge played Spanish Fork.
It was unexpected for the junior but not unwelcome.
“I started getting reps, and every day after school, we’d meet and go over plays,” he said. “Just so I felt comfortable. I just hadn’t done it for a while.”
It may seem like it was an easy move as Ainsworth had experience as a running back, but he said it was an adjustment that made him a bit nervous.
“Just getting the feel for it again,” he said of what was most difficult, “like knowing my right inserts and all that. I was pretty nervous the first game.”
Ainsworth was happy to contribute in whatever way the team needed, but he was anxious about whether he could deliver what was needed.
“I just didn’t want to let the team down,” he said. “I enjoy both (defense and offense), but I’ve always enjoyed being a running back.”
Ainsworth said that it took a few plays for him to regain the confidence he once had carrying the ball.
“The first few carries, I got like 10 or 12 yards, and so I guess, it was just after that, I was kind of fired up,” he said.
Ainsworth has shouldered the bulk of the load when it comes to the team’s ground game. He’s carried the ball 138 times for 730 yards and three touchdowns.
Only Palmer has more yards (on 70 carries), and the senior has returned to the lineup after missing several games with that hand injury.
“He became our feature running back in Week 6 of the season,” said Lehman. “And he didn’t take a carry in the first four games. He’s rushed for over 700 yards in four or five games.”
Lehman wasn't surprised by Ainsworth's success - or his willingness to change positions mid-season.
"We knew he was a really committed kid, really dedicated," Lehman said. "We knew he could do it, and we'd seen him run the ball as a freshman and sophomore. ...I wasn't surprised, but I was really proud of him. I was proud of the way he accepted a new challenge and didn't back down."
Ainsworth said Palmer and Notoa have helped him make the midseason switch.
“They’re both always right there during practice just helping me know my right inserts,” he said. “And then the offensive line has opened huge holes for me.”
In the team’s semifinal win over top-ranked Corner Canyon, Ainsworth said he fumbled twice.
“To me, it’s just like the worst feeling,” he said. ‘You’re turning the ball over and losing momentum for the team.”
His ability to move past mistakes and the support of his team helped him learn from the experience and not be discouraged by it.
“When I came off (the field), my whole team was just there for me,” Ainsworth said. “They came over and talked to me and said, ‘Hey, we’re good. Let’s go get it next time.’”
He finished with 37 yards rushing on eight carries, while Palmer earned 75 yards on 23 carries.
Ainsworth said he’s grateful for the chance to contribute to the team, especially with a title on the line Friday. His favorite moments are when he’s able to move the team down the field.
“After you make a play,” he said, “it’s always fun to see your teammates and how they all celebrate with you.”