The 125th season of Utah high school football officially kicks off this Thursday with an enticing showdown between East and Timpview, followed by 50 games on Friday.
At all 103 schools that will participate in football this fall, there's boundless optimism about a successful season. The definition of success is different from school to school for sure. For the elite programs, it’s always a championship-or-bust mentality. For other programs, a couple of wins would be a great step toward getting the program heading in the right direction.
To get fans geared up for what should be another fantastic season, here are 10 notable storylines for the 2017 high school football season.
Realignment musical chairs
The UHSAA’s decision to realign all sports into six classifications and not just football will have a major impact on the landscape in Utah and the teams competing for state titles.
For the most part, realignment created a trickle-down effect.
While five teams are bumping up a classification, 17 more are moving down a classification as the result of a redistribution of teams.
The state’s largest classification last season had 28 teams, while this year there are only 23 teams in 6A. Region 2 and Region 4 only have five teams in the region, which means teams will playing six preseason games and just four region games.
Last year, there were 27 teams in 4A, but the equivalent 5A this season only has 23 teams.
The biggest impact will be felt in 4A — the equivalent of 3AA last season. There were only 14 3AA teams a year ago, but, in 2017, there will be 24 teams. Five of those new teams are from Utah County, while three more are from Cache Valley.
The number of teams in 3A and 2A stays at 12, while 1A dips down to eight teams with Diamond Ranch dropping football and Wayne electing to play an independent schedule.
Realignment’s biggest impact will be in 5A and 4A. Without East clobbering everyone in sight, the new 5A is pretty open with several legitimate state title contenders. In 4A, the St. George schools now face much tougher competition in the playoffs which will put more pressure on a better finish in the regular season.
East-Bingham collision course
Last November, the organizers of the Geico Showcase in Texas had a difficult decision to make when filling out its four-team field for the post-Christmas high school football games.
It likes to showcase state championship teams against each other, and it had two quality choices from Utah to play against Florida’s St. Thomas Aquinas — undefeated Bingham (5A) or undefeated East (4A). It ultimately chose with Bingham, and, of course, East felt slighted getting passed over after a similar dominant season.
A year later, East will get a chance to prove on the field who the best team in Utah is.
East and Bingham are playing in the same classification this season, and the juggernauts meet in the preseason in Week 2. It could easily be the first of two meetings between the schools.
East is ranked No. 6 nationally according to MaxPreps, while Bingham checks in at No. 43.
East faces two other nationally ranked programs this season. A week after playing at Bingham it travels to Scottsdale, Arizona, to face top-100 program Saguaro High School.
The highlight of the schedule is a home game on Oct. 20 against No. 3 IMG Academy out of Bradenton, Fla. If both schools are still undefeated, that showdown could feature the top two teams in the country.
Before the Leopards get ahead of themselves, first they have to get past a Bingham team that’s probably irked by East getting all the national preseason attention in Utah.
Slinging it around
Friday night after Friday night last season, Lehi’s Cammon Cooper, Alta’s Will Dana, Jordan’s Crew Wakley and American Fork’s Bronson Barron put up big numbers in the passing game.
They finished the season ranked first through fourth in passing yardage led by Cooper who topped 4,036 yards. Incredibly, all four were juniors and there’s no telling what time of numbers they could put up this season.
Cooper is a Washington State commit who has his entire offense line back and two 1,000-yard receivers. None of the other three have that same type of experience returning, but they all have enough pieces back to produce similar seasons.
Alta’s passing game benefitted immensely from Josh Davis at running back, but his graduation means that Dana might have to throw even more. He was incredibly efficient with a 68.8 completion percentage last year — the highest of the four.
A handful of other quarterbacks are capable of breaking into the top five in passing yards this season. Corner Canyon’s Zach Wilson could have a big season with Eric Kjar taking over as head coach, and Taylorsville junior Dane Leituala could have a monster season if he stays healthy. As a sophomore, he passed for 2,682 yards in just nine games.
Not that long ago, going over 1,000 receiving yards was an elite accomplishment for high school receivers in Utah.
In 2008, only two receivers in Utah eclipsed that mark, and both were under 1,200 yards. From 2006 to 2015, there was an average of just 6.7 receivers to go over 1,000 yards, with a high of 11 in 2012.
The 2016 season shattered those numbers with 14 receivers topping the 1,000-yard mark, further proof of the impact of the spread offense on the changing landscape in high school football in Utah.
There were 46 teams that listed the spread offense as their base offense last season, and, not surprisingly, all 14 receivers who topped 1,000 yards came from one of those teams.
Remarkably, six of those 14 receivers were only juniors. Corner Canyon’s Colton Lawson, Lehi’s Dallin Holker and Kade Moore, Dixie’s Hobbs Nyberg, Alta’s Zach Engstrom and South Summit’s Parker Grajek are all back for their senior season this year.
Cache Valley excitement
The two-year transition in Cache Valley is complete. What was once a community of three high schools is now distributed into five schools of relatively equal size.
Last year, Ridgeline opened and split Mountain Crest in half, and, this fall, Green Canyon opens and splits Sky View’s enrollment in half. Logan is sandwiched in between, and it’s enrollment numbers are realistically unfazed.
What it means for the athletes and the fans is ton of excitement in the new Region 12 this season.
Instead of long drives down Sardine Canyon and I-15 for region games, most of the Cache Valley schools won’t have to drive far at all for their region games. The farthest any of them will venture is Bear River, which is only a 30-minute drive from Logan.
“Basically every week is a rivalry game. This is a good football valley in general. There’s great coaches throughout the region so everyone will have a quality product,” said Ridgeline coach Chris Howell.
Green Canyon and Logan were consistently picked as the bottom two teams in the region in the preseason coaches poll, but there was no consensus on how the other four teams will shake out which should add to the excitement on Friday nights.
Chase for 2,000
Last season there were actually two backs who had monster seasons as East’s Jaylen Warren rushed for 3,099 yards and Alta’s Josh Davis finished with 2,645 yards. Both totals broke the previous state record of 2,561 yards.
Every year over the past five seasons in Utah high school football, there’s been one running back who’s eclipsed the 2,000-yard mark.
In 2012, Pine View’s Prentiss Miller rushed for 2,150 yards, followed by East’s Ula Tulutau with a whopping 2,465 yards in 2013.
In 2014, Hunter’s Joseph Tiatia ripped off 2,205 yards. Alta’s Davis topped 2,077 yards in 2015.
Who will keep the streak going in 2017?
Kearns’ senior Sese Felila is certainly a candidate after rushing for 1,915 yards last season. Pine View’s Jacob Mpungi could be in the hunt late in the season as he’s coming off a 1,640-yard campaign as a junior last year.
Nice to meet you
If you’re heading out to a high school football game this season, but sure to grab a roster at the gate. There’s a 50-50 chance you won’t recognize the head coaches.
Of the 103 teams playing varsity football this season, 50 have a head coach in either his first or second year at the current school. Twenty-six of the coaches are in their first year.
The average numbers of years the 103 coaches have been at their current school is only 4.5 years, a 10-year low and perhaps the lowest it’s ever been.
The changes have brought a lot of youthful enthusiasm to the sideline, particularly down at San Juan. Barkley Christensen takes over for Monty Lee as head coach just five seasons after leading the Broncos to a 2A runner-up finish during his all-state QB season.
The elder statesman of the coaching ranks is still Juan Diego’s John Colosimo, who enters his 30th overall season as a head coach. He’s the only head coach in the 18-year history of Juan Diego, and before that he was head coach at Judge.
Five other coaches in Utah have 20-plus years of coaching experience: Uintah’s Todd Peacock (29 years), Riverton’s Blaine Monkres (27 years), Pleasant Grove’s Mark Wootton (27 years), Hunter’s Scott Henderson (22 years) and Juab’s Mike Bowring (21 years).
Superb in the trenches
When it comes to football in Utah this season, one of the most watched areas — at least according to college scouts — will be in the trenches.
Of the top 10 seniors in Utah according to rivals.com, seven are either offensive or defensive lineman. It’s the highest number of lineman in the top 10 since 2011 when there were also seven in the rivals rankings.
There were only four linemen in the top 10 last season, and only three each the year before.
This year’s list of outstanding line includes Desert Hills’ Penei Sewell, Olympus’ Cameron Latu, East’s Junior Angilau, East’s Sam Taimani, Highland’s Hunter Lotulelei, East’s Tennessee Pututau and Herriman’s Jaren Kump.
The big boys of college football have already swooped in and nabbed one of those recruits, as Latu recently committed to Alabama.
Lotulelei has committed to Utah while Kump has committed to BYU.
The 2016 high school football season was a rough one for a lot of programs. There were 16 teams that went winless or only won once, the most teams with that few wins over the past 10 teams.
A bounce-back season could certainly be coming for a lot of those teams.
Success in high school football often comes with stability in the coaching staff, and of those 16 teams that struggled in 2106 only four made coaching changes.
The year with the fewest teams that won zero or one game was in 2008, when just seven teams suffered that distinction.
Expectations always hit or miss
Each season the Deseret News asks coaches around the state to project how they think teams will finish within their own region. Last year was a pretty good predictor of success.
Of the 16 teams projected to win their respective region titles a year ago, 12 went on to do exactly that — with three of those teams earning a share of the region title.4 comments on this story
Only Dixie, Morgan, Summit Academy and Diamond Ranch defied expectations to win the region title. The year before only nine of 16 projected region champs ultimately claimed the region trophy.
As one coach Utah high school football coach famously said, “Anybody that tries to make a prediction of this year’s success based upon previous teams is purely guessing. It’s a compliment, not an accomplishment.”
This year’s region projections had a handful of surprises, but only time will tell if it was a wild guess or an educator guess.