Orem • Once Orem High football coach Jeremy Hill landed the head job three years ago, it didn’t take long for him to shift the team culture. Instead of starting preparations for the season in July or August, he moved them to the spring. He overturned the coaching staff after his first year. He streamlined practices to get more out of his players in less time.
All of those efforts led to more than tripling the participation in spring football. That led to a significant uptick in recruiting. And they led to back-to-back 4A championships in 2017 and 2018.
But the Tigers have some changes surrounding their upcoming 2019 season. Star players Cooper Legas and Puka Nacua graduated and will play college football at Utah State University and Washington, respectively. The new alignment from the Utah High School Activities Association kicked the Tigers up to 5A. Many of the players on their offensive line were lost to graduation.
Despite all that, the team has the utmost confidence heading into this season. Back-to-back championships aren’t enough. The Tigers have their claws set on winning a championship in 5A and cementing into everyone’s minds that the last two weren’t flukes. In the hierarchy of Utah prep football, the state’s perennial big three of Bingham, East and Timpview may have to make room for a fourth member.
“If we want to be talked about being a dynasty so to speak, or Orem is back to being a perennial powerhouse year in, year out like it used to be in the 80s and 90s, I think it goes a long way to go and win a third one this year and be talked about as, alright, that’s for real,” Hill told The Salt Lake Tribune.
In the 4A tournament last year, Orem won games by an average of 43.8 points. It lost all of two games all season, and went 5-0 in its region. To call the Tigers dominant was an understatement.
But the perceived ease with which Orem rolled through its classification has the team thinking 2019 will be a year to prove it can hang with stiffer competition and higher-octane offenses.
“Last year everybody thought we weren’t that good because we were in 4A,” senior running back Buju Tuisavura said. “But now that we got up to 5A, I think this year I’d say it’s time to wake everyone up.”
Legas and Nacua combined for 7,751 passing, rushing and receiving yards in 2018, with Nacua’s main role being wide receiver. Micah Fe’a and Tuisavura have a chance to take over the quarterback and running back duties, respectively, for the Tigers. Fe’a is a junior and a first-year starter, while Tuisavura is a returning senior.
But while the Tigers acknowledge that their offense will be playing catch-up to start the season, they’re confident about the current roster and and how hungry it is to win another title.
“Yeah we don’t have a Cooper, we don’t have a Puka no more,” junior offensive lineman Kingsley Suamataia said. “But I think we’ll be fine because the next guy always steps up. They all like competing.”
OTHER TEAMS TO KEEP AN EYE ON
With South Summit and Grand County both moving into 3A, the 2A title looks to be Milford’s to lose. The Tigers won the 1A championship in 2018, but that classification no longer exists in the current UHSAA alignment. Milford went undefeated last season, and star quarterback Bryson Barnes is back and could surpass 10,000 career passing yards in 2019.
3A: Juan Diego
The Soaring Eagles will be soaring even higher this season with the addition of four-star recruit Xavier Carlton, who transferred from a school in California. Carlton will be on of the main staples for Juan Diego’s defense in 2019, which already allowed the fourth-least points in 3A last year. The Soaring Eagles may not be favorites in the classification, but Carlton will be reason enough to make it out to Draper for a few games.
4A: Park City
The Miners have several things going for them in the 2019 season, but one thing stands out among them all: Every one of their main players were juniors last year and will be returning in 2019. That means quarterback Jack Skidmore, wide receiver Mark McCurdy and running back Brady Baumann are a year older and wiser, and will look to lead their fellow seniors to a 4A state title.
One of the Orem Tigers admitted it: Their toughest competition in 5A will be Thunderbirds. Although Timpview lost in the 5A quarterfinals to Roy a season ago, its returning running back duo of juniors Sione Moa and Targhee Lambson should rack up more yards than they did last in 2018. And with both Skyridge and Corner Canyon both bumped up to 6A, there’s no other team in the way of the Thunderbirds.
6A: Corner Canyon
The Chargers ran through last year’s schedule and ended up with a 12-0 record and a 5A state championship. They’re moving to 6A in 2019, but with returners like quarterback Cole Hagen, offensive lineman Jackson Light and wide receiver Noah Kjar, the Chargers looked primed to contend for a state title in Utah’s highest — and in many ways most competitive — classification.
Hill, who is entering his fourth year as head coach of Orem, called Legas and Nacua “once-in-a-lifetime-type players,” but said it’s his offensive line that needs the most work rather than replacing the production of his two former stars. In Hill’s mind, Orem’s defense, which has a core of returners, will have to carry the load for the first few weeks of the season.
“I think we’re going to have to be leaning on our defense a lot more than we did last year,” Tuisavura said. “But I think our defense is ready for that.”
Nacua amassed 2,336 receiving yards in 2018 and set a receiving touchdowns record when he grabbed his 26th in the 4A state title game last November. Hill doesn’t think there will be a drop-off in production at that position because he has a bunch of receivers who can put up numbers.
Besides, there’s a part of him that wants to see if he can win a title without arguably the best receiver in Utah last year, and with the roster he currently has.
“I’m a competitive person,” Hill said. “For me personally, it’s going to feel good to go win one without Puka Nacua.”
Hill is also aware of what people on the outside may think if Orem doesn’t perform up to expectations this season. The Tigers are considered one of the favorites to win the 5A championship.
“If you come out and lay an egg this year, then everyone goes, ‘Oh yeah it was just because they were 4A,’” Hill said.
But many on the team said that not only Orem will come away with another championship, but it’s the best team in the entire state. Fe’a said he didn’t just think that — he knows it. Hill has felt it the past two seasons, although he acknowledges that his viewpoint is a tad skewed — Orem hasn’t played the 5A and 6A champions.
And if the Tigers want to be considered the next dynasty team in Utah, hitting the ground running and leaving the rest of the 5A competition in the dust will need to be their focus. It appears that’s already happening.
“We’re just trying to three-peat,” Tuisavura said. “That’s all we have in mind.”
The 2019-21 realignment proved impactful for several high school football programs, with many top schools moving classifications and therefore impacting season trajectories. Defending 4A champion Orem moved to 5A, and both Corner Canyon — 2018 5A champion — and Skyridge are now in 6A.
The other big change for high school sports is the adoption of the Ratings Percentage Index, which gives every team the opportunity to compete in the postseason. Football is one of the seven sports affected by the change.