Sandy • As the temperature falls by the minute, huge gusts of wind whip fallen leaves, ushering in an impending storm from the west.
It's autumn-come-winter typically a time when football players are zapped of verve and vitality, beaten down by a season of brutal tackles and repetitious pounding.
Yet there is an energy and enthusiasm on the face of Mack Richards, Alta's all-everything playmaker. He loves this time of year; the start of the high school football playoffs, a time for which he lives and treasures.
"There was a different feel today at practice," Richards said earlier this week. "It's the playoffs; now or never."
His exuberance is laced in optimism that comes from playing in one of the state's most prolific passing offenses. Alta's average of more than 230 yards passing per game is tops in Class 5A, thanks in great part to the play of Richards. The senior wideout leads 5A in receiving yards (1,025) and receiving touchdowns (12) in the Hawks' nine regular-season games. Alta quarterback Chipper Lucero's philosophy is a simple one: Need a big play? Better go to Mack. Need to convert third down? Better go to Mack.
"Third down, I have to know where he is, every third-down play, so I can get it in his hands," said Lucero, also a senior, who has thrown for 26 touchdowns this season. "I expect [big plays] out of him. I think the team expects it out of him. He's just a great player."
The Lucero-to-Richards connection has torched defenses in big situations this season. Staring in the face a possible 0-2 start to the season after digging a 10-0 hole to Lone Peak, the quarterback relied heavily on his top target, to the tune of 14 catches for 259 yards and touchdowns of 54 and 63 yards.
He caught four touchdowns against Timpview the following week. Richards caught 10 passes and scored twice in a near-upset of top-ranked Bingham last week.
"He's a great kid, and we had no answer for him," Bingham coach Dave Peck said. "There's no way we could put our [defensive backs] in a one-on-one situation with him. He's just too good."
Though defenses have tried, few have been able to keep the ball out of No. 1's hands. Evading two or more defenders has become routine, yet the big numbers still pile up. Alta is averaging more than 35 points per game this season.
"They will roll a safety over or they will bring a linebacker over and stack a safety right behind him," said Richards, who has received interest from Oregon State, Arizona, Utah and Hawaii, among others. "Just the chemistry [Lucero and I] have really helps to make those big plays. He puts the ball where it needs to be. He makes it easy on me. I just have to go up and get it."
Richards joined former teammate Ammon Barker (2012) as 1,000-yard receivers in Alta's offense in the past four years.
Richards played alongside two heavily recruited receivers in Barker, now at Hawaii, and the University of Utah's Harrison Handley a season ago. Alta coach Bob Stephens said his senior's talent is on par with the former standouts.
"In my opinion, he's right there with the other two," Stephens said. "He has speed and runs great routes. He has a knack for finding holes in the zone and be where he is supposed to."
Richards is quick to defer praise, and he said he gladly would play the decoy because of the faith he has in fellow receivers Nate Teahan and Logan Harrison. It's clear, though, that if the Hawks want to shake a disappointing fourth-place finish in Region 3 and play a November game at Rice-Eccles Stadium for the first time since 2009, Richards will be the reason.
That quest begins Friday when the Hawks (4-5) open on the road at Region 2 champion Taylorsville (6-3).
School • Alta
Year • Senior
Position • Wide receiver
Friday's first round
4 p.m. • Jordan at Hunter
4 p.m. • Layton at Herriman
4 p.m. • Lone Peak at Syracuse
5 p.m. • Cottonwood at Brighton
5 p.m. • Northridge at Riverton
5 p.m. • Pleasant Grove at Davis
5 p.m. • West at Bingham
6 p.m. • Alta at Taylorsville
Friday's first round
3 p.m. • Box Elder at Woods Cross
3 p.m. • Highland at Sky View
3:30 p.m. • Roy at East
4 p.m. • Olympus at Springville
4 p.m. • Salem Hills at Orem
5 p.m. • Bountiful at Logan
5 p.m. • Timpanogos at Timpview
6 p.m. • Spanish Fork at Corner Canyon
Friday's first round
5 p.m. • Cedar City at Park City
5 p.m. • Hurricane at Bear River
7 p.m. • Tooele at Snow Canyon
7 p.m. • Uintah at Desert Hills
4 p.m. • Richfield at Morgan
5 p.m. • North Sanpete at Judge
6 p.m. • Emery at Manti
6 p.m. • Grantsville at Juab
Class 2A quarterfinals
2 p.m. • San Juan at South Summit
6 p.m. • Parowan at Beaver
6 p.m. • South Sevier at Grand County
2 p.m. • Gunnison Valley at North Summit
2 p.m. • Monument Valley at Duchesne
3 p.m. • Monticello at Rich
6 p.m. • Milford at Kanab
11 a.m. • Altamont at Diamond Ranch