Prep football: 3A North preview
To say that Carbon High football has struggled in the last decade would be an understatement. The Dinos' record since 2004 is nine wins against 87 losses. Their best season was 2011, when they went 4-5. The last two years, Carbon is a combined 1-19.
But Carbon alum Jan Jorgensen, a former defensive star at BYU, has returned to Price to coach his alma mater and is bringing a new defense, a new offense and perhaps most importantly hopeful attitude to the struggling program.
"It is fun, but there is also a lot of pressure," said Jorgensen, who is also a first-year teacher at Carbon. "There are a lot of expectations. It's different being back here. It's crazy up north, and I am coming back to being more of a small-town area."
Jorgensen is trying to keep his team's new schemes under wraps as it prepares for an opener against Grand. All he will say is that while many of the 3A and 2A teams in Utah use a wing-T offense, he guarantees Carbon's offense will be more modernized and not look anything like that.
The new coach is realistic but optimistic.
"We've come a long ways from where we started to where we are at right now," he said. "If we can stay healthy, which is always the key to a football team at certain positions, we can be pretty good. But part of me doesn't know where we are until we play that first game."
Carbon teams have proved they can win. The Helper baseball team just won its second straight Utah American Legion title, and two of the football players missed some time at practice playing in the regionals.
One thing is certain. The program has nowhere to go but up.
Last year • 0-10
Key returner • Quarterback Jarod Lesser, who started last year but was injured about a quarter of the way through the season, should lead Carbon's reformatted offense.
Player to watch • Garrett Blanc, a slotback, will be relied upon to make big plays.
Biggest hole • Carbon has been bit by the injury bug in recent years. Coach Jan Jorgensen is installing a new offense and defense, which players will need to master.
Need to know • Jorgensen graduated from Carbon in 2003 after playing all four years as a defensive end and as quarterback his junior and senior year. He was a BYU star at defensive end.
To say the Emery Spartans are a young football team might be a bit of an understatement.
With only two starters returning and a total of six seniors on the team, Emery will be turning to its underclassmen to provide depth. Coach Jim Jones estimates that as many as six sophomores might be starting for the Spartans.
Such inexperience might be perceived as a liability, but Jones has been impressed with what he's seen so far from the younger players.
"We have a great attitude," he said. "We're a very hard-working football team.
"Yeah, we are young, we are inexperienced, but we feel we are pretty talented, too. I could see us very easily surprising some people who overlook us."
The two returning starters, Matt Mecham and Tai Justice, will be looked upon to provide leadership for the young team. Though only 5-foot-9 and 170 pounds, Mecham, a running back/linebacker, is "relentless," according to Jones.
Justice returns at quarterback and brings an accurate arm to the offense. "Most of what we do this year will be out of the shotgun to help Tai, because he is very accurate if he has a little bit of time," Jones said.
The experience Mecham and Justice bring surely will help their younger teammates. Emery's success might hinge on how quickly the new starters get up to speed.
"We're really focusing on the basics, the fundamentals," Jones said. "We're just trying to teach the young kids to do things the right way. Whatever the situation is, we just want them to play hard."
Last year • 4-7 overall (2-3 in 3A North; lost in first round of Class 3A playoffs)
Key returner • Quarterback Tai Justice is one of only two returning starters and will provide leadership to the young team.
Players to watch • Juniors Tyler Olson (RB/LB) and T.J. Lacock (WR/DE) are just two of the young players the Spartans will rely on this season.
Biggest hole • Depth. With only six seniors on the team, Emery will be looking to its underclassmen to step up.
Need to know • The Spartans returned to Class 3A for football last year and made the state playoffs after spending a couple seasons in 2A.
Grantsville might have graduated 22 seniors from a highly regarded team that lost in the Class 3A quarterfinals to Juab a year ago, but coach Tony Cloward thinks his program has progressed to the point where the Cowboys should be good again this year.
"The wonderful thing about preseason is that we're all optimistic," said Cloward, whose team opens against Cedar City before a big rivalry game against Tooele.
One of the reasons for that optimism is the return of three-year starting quarterback Nephi Meono, who will also play defense this year on a team that returns 14 seniors. Grantsville runs a split veer offensive system, which means that the quarterback often has to make split-second decisions. Having a veteran in the position helps that.
Meono will likely be handing off a lot to Wyatt Barrus, the MVP on the Cowboys' state championship baseball team who will be moving to running back this year.
As Grantsville begins its 98th year of playing competitive football, the big concern is lack of experience. But Cloward is confident that the younger players who have come up through a winning tradition are talented enough to compete in Tough 3A North that includes defending champion Judge, Morgan and Union.
Last year • 7-4, lost to Juab in Class 3A quarterfinals.
Key returner • Quarterback Nephi Meono is a three-year starter, who will also play some defense. On a young team, his experience could be key.
Player to watch • Baseball MVP Wyatt Barrus has moved to running back, an important spot on a run-oriented team.
Biggest hole • In a word, the biggest concern is experience. Grantsville graduated 22 seniors a year ago, so some inexperienced players are going to need to step up.
Need to know • Grantsville's rivalry with Morgan is one of the oldest in the state. The two schools have played 78 times.
Judge Memorial Bulldogs
In 2013, Judge Memorial captured the UHSAA Class 3A championship for the school's first state title in 30 years.
The question for 2014: As an encore, can the Bulldogs repeat?
With many starters, including four all-staters, returning from last year's team that also won its region, Judge may at least have some momentum toward delivering another memorable season. But with the state title comes expectations. And pressure.
"There's a little bit of nervousness," coach James Cordova said. "It's always excited to get going, but there's a little bit of nerves there, too."
Fortunately for the Bulldogs, enough talented players are back from last year's title run to help calm any jitters. Defensive lineman Ricki Maka, linebackers Max Barnett and Braden Pelly, and defensive back Michael Kearns all four also play offense earned statewide honors last year and give Judge valuable experience on both sides of the ball.
"It's a nice group of kids," Cordova said. "We've had a great follow-through this summer. The program, the last few years, has evolved into what it needs to be in terms of the kids' commitment and focusing on what they're doing."
Maka will anchor an offensive line that includes three players Mason Knight, Noah Elliss and Quincy Houston who each weigh more than 300 pounds.
Cordova believes the play of both lines will be crucial to Judge's success.
"We have to jell up front," he said. "Having veterans and rookies mixed together is always an interesting mix. We need those guys to come together. High school football is won or lost in the trenches."
Last year • 11-2 overall (5-0 in 3A North; won Class 3A state title)
Key returner • Ricki Maka, an All-State selection on the defensive line, brings experience to the trenches on both sides of the ball.
Player to watch • Jacob Cline, who was a starter on the offensive line last year before breaking his foot and missing the last six games of the season, is back.
Biggest hole • Though Michael Kearns was an All-State defensive back last season, he is the only returning starter from the secondary.
Need to know • Offensive coordinator and state coaching legend Ray Groth retired after 46 years on the sidelines at several different schools. Head coach James Cordova is taking over working with the offense, and Luther Elliss is calling the plays on defense.
Morgan High's football team has been a small-school power for so many years in Utah that it is easy to take the Trojans for granted.
The northern Utah team has won six state titles and 21 league titles. In the 15 years coach Kovi Christiansen has worked at the school, the team has never failed to make the state tournament. In fact, he said he can't remember the last time the Trojans did not make it to state.
That said, this year's team has some challenges to face in tough Class 3A North.
The main thing is that the Trojans have only three starters returning from a year ago, making them quite inexperienced. And Christiansen said the team is on the small side.
That sad, success often breeds success.
"It does help us a little bit," said the veteran coach about past success. "These guys got to practice all year with those guys. Being around competitors has helped their competitive drive as well. We are hoping that will carry over and be good for us."
Morgan runs a little bit of everything in its offense, but is primarily a run-oriented double-wing team.
Last year • 9-3 (lost in 3A semifinals)
Key returner • Bridger Streadbeck, defensive end and wide receiver.
Player to watch • Running back Jake Peterson, who played well a year ago.
Biggest hole • Morgan lacks experience, with only three returning starters back, and is on the small side.
Need to know • In the 15 years coach Kovi Christiansen has been at Morgan High, the Trojans have never missed a state tournament.
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.