Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.
Quarterbacks revel in all of the fame and take all of the blame on a football team. They touch the ball on every offensive play. They not only have to be able to throw, but also run, make quick decisions, read the defense and organize an offense. It’s no wonder all eyes are on the QB both between the lines and from the stands.
Utah occasionally produces promising young quarterbacks. Zach Wilson attended Corner Canyon High. Jaxson Dart, also a Corner Canyon Chargers alumnus, is preparing for his first season at USC. Cooper Legas of Orem High is currently at Utah State, former Charger Cole Hagen is at Yale and Pleasant Grove alumnus Jake Jensen in his first season at BYU.
Many of the most productive QBs last season will graduate this year. But there is a group that could take the state by storm, and maybe even earn college scholarships. The Salt Lake Tribune talked to five of them.
McCae Hillstead, Skyridge sophomore
Hillstead is the only sophomore in this group of quarterbacks. He threw for 3,077 yards and 35 touchdowns last season, which ended when the Falcons lost to Lone Peak in the 6A semifinals. He ranked fifth in the state in passing yards.
“He’s a really hard worker,” Skyridge coach John Lehman said. “He’s very humble. He’s very coachable. And he wants to be his best.”
Lehman said Hillstead can throw a football 60 yards and run 100 meters in under 11 seconds — feats he called “unusual.” But the most unique aspect of Hillstead is the poise he displays for a someone who is only 15 years old.
Hillstead said his even-keel nature comes from experiencing a family tragedy several years ago, which taught him how to approach situations differently.
“I think I have a mentality to where I try not to be a victim of any certain situation,” Hillstead said. “I just try to make it so no situation is too big for me, and I can handle every situation because I have control of my life. I’m the one that’s steering the boat. The waves may hit the boat, but I’m the one steering it, and I’m going to be able to get out of any storm that I’m in.”
That lesson translates to the football field, Hillstead said. He’ll be looking to have an even bigger season for Skyridge his junior year as he works on becoming a faster runner and perfecting his throwing mechanics.
Kaden Cox, Ridgeline junior
Ridgeline has had three different coaching staffs in the three seasons Cox has played football there.
“It’s been super hard having to change offenses every year and learning new stuff every year,” Cox said.
But last season, his father, Travis, was named head coach. And the staff Travis Cox brought on seemed to put the Riverhawks players in better positions, Kaden said, which translated to a semifinal appearance in last season’s 4A state tournament.
Kaden Cox threw for 30 touchdowns and 2,756 yards as a junior.
“Kaden is extremely competitive and will do what it takes to win,” Travis Cox said. “He’s very smart and understands what we are trying to get done on offense and as a result is extremely efficient and doesn’t turn the ball over much.”
Football isn’t even Kaden Cox’s main sport. He said he likes basketball better and hopes to get a scholarship to play in college. If an opportunity for college football presents itself, however, he said he will consider it. He said several colleges have reached out to him in some capacity for football, including Nevada, Colorado State, Eastern Washington and Weber State.
Kaden Cox considers himself hyper-competitive, a trait he said he got from his father, who played quarterback at Utah State and also was a talented basketball player. He hopes to develop his arm so he can put more velocity on his passes, and also wants to improve how he reads defenses.
Kaden Cox thinks Ridgeline can contend for the Region 11 title in 2021.
“I think we stack up against everyone else in the region,” Kaden Cox said. “But we should be at the top of it this year, I think.”
Ethan Jackson, Alta junior
Jackson led Alta to the 5A quarterfinals last season. The team ended with a 6-6 record, and Jackson was just 11 passing yards away from 3,000 and contributed 28 touchdown passes to boot.
But he will have a new challenge for his senior year. The Hawks will graduate many productive players this year. So when football practices start up again in preparation for the fall, the team will be much younger and less experienced.
Jackson said some of the younger players from last year’s squad have strong work ethics, and he hopes they can contribute. He also wants to try building chemistry with his new receiving corps.
“I think it’s just a matter of making sure you have that connection and building that connection again with your new receivers,” Jackson said.
Alta likes to play a hurry-up offense at times and likes for Jackson to throw deep passes. But something he’s been working on lately is his speed. He runs the 100-meter, 200-meter and 4x100-meter relay events for Alta’s track and field team.
“That’s really helped with the speed and being able to avoid pass rush and making plays on my feet,” Jackson said. “So I think this next coming year, that will be a big part of my game.”
Alta coach Alema Te’o has high expectations for Jackson in the upcoming season.
“He’s loved by his teammates and we will depend on his leadership to elevate our team this year,” Te’o said. “I believe he has what it takes to be one of the best QBs to ever play at Alta.”
Jace Palmer, San Juan junior
Palmer, whose team has to drive an average of four hours to compete in games, had a good season at 2,859 passing yards and 31 touchdowns.
Palmer said the team tweaked its offensive game plan in 2020 to feature more passing. That is partly what allowed him to have the kind of season he had. But the explanation might be simpler than that.
“We have a lot good receivers,” Palmer said.
What makes Palmer unique, though, is what he does off the field. He often herds cattle, rides horses and participates in other cowboy activities throughout the season, but mostly during the summer months.
“I have never coached a QB who bales hay after our summer practices,” San Juan coach Barkley Christensen said.
Palmer has played quarterback for as long as he can remember. He loves the attention the position brings.
“I like being under pressure,” Palmer said. “It feels better to be in a pressure situation and come out of it on top.”
Christensen said Palmer’s cowboy background is partly what makes him the player he is.
“Very mentally and physically tough kid who has earned his teammates’ trust and respect,” Christensen said. “He put up some crazy numbers this last year as a [junior] and it’s in large part because he has been taught how to work hard his whole life and be calm in tough situations.”
Maddux Madsen, American Fork junior
Madsen is the most productive quarterback on this list. He led the Cavemen to the 6A championship game in 2019, and threw for 4,044 yards and 48 touchdowns last season. He threw for 628 yards and nine touchdowns — both figures good for second in the UHSAA record book — in a 69-49 victory over East.
Nicknamed “Mad Dog” — a moniker also carried by his father, Eric, who coaches baseball at American Fork — Madsen has a scholarship offer to play at the University of New Mexico. He said part of the reason for his success as a junior was the player-led practices his teammates held during the period that COVID-19 had put the football season in jeopardy.
Madsen earned the starting job as a sophomore and threw for almost 3,700 yards that year. He said he’s come to appreciate the skill development that some players can find monotonous.
“I’ve learned to love practice,” Madsen said. “Games are fun. Nothing will beat games. But there’s a level of greatness that comes with practice and what it takes to be great.”
Cavemen coach Aaron Behm said Madsen has never really shied away from big moments, which has led to his success.
“He has played some of his best games against the best teams,” Behm said. “I think the reason for that is he always loves to compete. It could be baseball or football, or you name it, he just competes. This also allows him to be a very collected and confident leader in tight situations.”
Madsen, who also plays baseball for American Fork, wants to win a state title in his senior year. But he also has some personal goals, like finding a way to break the single-season school record in passing yards and touchdowns — records he already owns.