Prep football preview: Union Cougars
EDITOR'S NOTE • This is one in a series of previews of Utah's high school football programs. They will run throughout the summer leading up to the 2014 regular season, which begins Aug. 21.
With eight starters on offense and eight on defense back from last year, experience clearly is a strength for the Union football team. And the 2013 season was definitely an experience for those returning players.
Union coach Matt Labrum made headlines in September when he and his staff suspended the entire team for off-the field behavior and made the players earn their jerseys back. The Cougars responded positively to their coach's unique action, and though it didn't necessarily translate to victories, the end result was what Labrum had hoped for.
"Our expectations are set," Labrum said. "Kids understand what we're trying to do and what we're about. It's not just X's and O's on the football field, but that the other things matter and will carry over on the football field. We're a closer unit."
The combination of the last year's emotional growth and the swath of returning starters has other 3A North coaches seeing Union as a dark horse in the region. Many of the experienced players will be entering their third year as starters, and the entire offensive line is back from last season's 4-6 team.
"Experience is always so good," Labrum said. "You have to do something with it, put in the hard work and the effort in the offseason and in the season when things get tough. With the things that have happened in the past and how kids have responded to what we've been doing, and their efforts this year, we've been real pleased."
Senior Jordan Gurr anchors a veteran offensive line that will protect quarterback Tye Winterton, who, like Gurr, is entering his third year as starter, and All-State skills player Nic Smith. Defensive lineman Paul Kaufusi, another impending three-year starter who registered seven sacks last year, leads the defense.
Last year • 4-6 overall (1-4 in 3A North)
Key returner • Nic Smith, nicknamed "Slash," was All-State at receiver last season, but he also lines up at running back and quarterback, as well as playing linebacker.
Player to watch • Villami Letui is a defensive back/slot receiver that coach Matt Labrum describes as "an impact player."
Biggest hole • Labrum feels that the Cougars need to become a more physical, punishing team on both sides of the ball.
Need to know • Besides the improvement shown by so many returning players, Labrum is says that Union is a faster team this year than in the past.