Players gain valuable experience at Mountain West Elite camp
It's not exactly football, but it's the next-best thing.
Going one-on-one against a defensive back isn't quite the same without a helmet or pads, Isaiah Kaufusi said. But he's been glad to play anyway, get the dust off his football repertoire.
There's not a lot of chances to work on running routes, making high-point catches or getting a handle on footwork in the offseason. At Mountain West Elite football camp, that's what the Brighton rising senior can work on while continuing his hunt for more Division I scholarships this spring.
"I know I have to get faster and just get better at all of it," the 6-foot-2 receiver said. "I have to make quick breaks, get a feel where defenders are."
It's a learning process, one that's often interrupted by dead periods: stretches when recruits can't participate in 7-on-7 passing drills with their own coaches. It creates rust, said Ed Larson, one of the camp's directors. Come two-a-days, most high school football players aren't at the level where they left off.
That's what inspired Larson and fellow coaches Riley Jensen and Alema Te'o to start putting together a spring skills camp as much a refresher course as a classroom. Of course, this classroom plays out on the fields at Salt Lake Community College, where the high-school aged players are coached on how to make plays on the gridiron.
"They work so hard to develop these skills, and we try to help get the cobwebs off," Larson said. "It's one of the toughest sports to play, but we're given the least time to help these kids. A lot of these things, they aren't really able to do on their own."
And these aren't just enthusiastic fathers who are eager to volunteer: The trio has brought in coaches such as former NFL receiver Kevin Curtis, and a host of collegiate stars like Jeff Kaufusi, Jan Jorgensen and several others who pick at technique and execution.
The pacing is intentionally college-like a take-care-of-business-and-keep-moving style that gives wannabe college players a taste of what upper-level football really is like. They study plays early in the week, then are asked to execute them during Friday and Saturday sessions. They study different coverages and are mixing them all together by camp's end.
That's helpful instruction for players who are near the beginning of their careers, like Woods Cross safety Braxton Gunther. The rising sophomore played varsity downs for the Wildcats and has a lot to live up to following Stanford-bound Sean Barton at safety. It's inspired him to work year-round on his football development.
"There's definitely quite a bit of pressure," he said. "I want to go play out of state, too, so I know there's a lot I can work on. It's good to learn from guys who have been there."
But that also includes tips from players who've been in the fray for longer, like Kavika Fonua. The Syracuse safety has been in his share of big games, including going to Rice-Eccles Stadium the past two years with the Titans, as well as starring for Utah squads at 7-on-7 tournaments in Las Vegas.
A standout among the Mountain West Elite crowd, many other players look up to him. But Fonua also has worked hard to improve his speed and agility, knowing that even being the best defensive back in the camp isn't worth settling for. He's been in conversations with several in-state schools and feels a scholarship is forthcoming.
"It would be special to me because all my cousins and uncles played football, and a lot of them played in college," he said. "I need to keep doing 1-on-1s, don't give up, hope for some of those offers to come in."
The recruits who do have a bit of a reputation coming in still are pushed to find their best. Baron Gajkowski was a star at Lone Peak last season, leading the Knights to the 5A semifinals before falling to eventual champion Jordan.
But at SLCC, Gajkowski is one of more than two dozen prospective quarterbacks. They run drills to get their footwork in sync, working toward a near automatic sense of execution until their toes tell them where they should be going.
It's something to think about for Gajkowski, who will be working with a new coaching staff for his senior year. He hopes versatility will serve him well this fall and beyond.
"I'm just a football player, and whatever I can do to play, I'll do it," he said. "I'm just focused on making myself better and making my team better."
Even those who do have college futures, such as Utah State signee Tyler Fox, are squeezing every bit of practice they can get.
Fox runs track in the spring, where he's one of the fastest athletes who hits the oval. But running routes and catching passes is where his future lies. So he takes any opportunity he can get to stay on top of his game.
"I gotta get in the weight room too, but I love playing football, even with guys who aren't from Layton," he said. "It's a great feeling to know my parents don't have to pay for college, but I know the work isn't done."
Larson will be happy to return to his Timpanogos team this fall. There's a lot of work to be done for the Timberwolves, who hope to get a few more wins next season.
But Larson said what struck him the most about leading the camp is just being around so many teenagers who are all competing to be better. It's a positive message about what football means, but also reminds him how much it takes. And he thinks it reminds them as well.
"You see the guts and desire these kids have to be the best at their school," he said. "Seeing all these other kids out there, they start to understand it's about more than that. They've got to really want it."