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Prep freshmen making impact on football field

Derek Tuimauga strapped up as a varsity starter at Bingham for the first time when he was 13 years old — and, yes, that was for the high school team.

"He was very average," recalls Miners coach Dave Peck, "... (but) he did OK."

Four years of starting experience later, the 325-pounder is a leaner (relatively, of course) and meaner (you try getting past him) hole-creating machine who has packed on muscle and committed to the University of Utah.

"He's 10 times better," Peck says. "He's not even the same player."

With the number of freshmen football players who are making big-time impacts in varsity play lately, that progression potential is an equally terrifying and tantalizing concept for high school coaches in the state's biggest classifications. After all, if these contributing ninth-graders are this good now, it's scary to think what level they'll rise to as mature seniors.

It isn't unheard of for freshmen to play varsity — especially in individual sports like wrestling, tennis, swimming or track — but it's an anomaly any time a 13- or 14-year-old lines up against the upperclassmen on the gridiron. But from Mountain Crest to Riverton over the past few weeks, that's just what's taking place. And these youngsters are more than holding their own. For instance:

• In his first start last week, South Cache Junior High School student Alex Kuresa started at QB for Mountain Crest and connected on his first 18 passes, finished with 180 yards and a TD toss, and led the Mustangs to a 28-9 win over Roy.

• Highland ninth-grader Nate Fakahafua hauled in two touchdown catches — including an eye-opening, game-winning 39-yarder in the last minute against West two weeks ago — in his starting debut.

• Defensive back Ekuasi Tavo, who goes to Westlake Junior High, replaced an injured senior as a Hunter starter and returned an interception for a score against Copper Hills in his first start and had another pick-six to clinch a win against West Jordan.

• Riverton (Ben Lindsey) and Highland (Ono Tafisi) have also started freshmen in their trenches, while Hunter's Tevita Bloomfield and Kearns' J.R. Finai have both seen varsity action prior to high school enrollment. And the list goes on ...

Many schools have freshmen who play with their sophomore and junior varsity squads. And a lot have underclassmen dress up for games to fill up the sidelines, but it's not too common to have this many play and perform so well.

"Very rarely do I have a ninth-grader that we feel like can play," Peck said. "To me, if they start here as a sophomore, you're a (Division-I) potential."

While a lot of coaches prefer to let their ninth-graders play with kids their own age in youth conferences, Highland coach Brody Benson was more than willing to allow his two outstanding kids to come up and tangle with the big boys. It helps that Highland is a four-year school, so Tafisi and Fakahafua get daily interaction in school with their teammates unlike the boys who have to be driven to practice from their junior high schools. The young Rams also get to hit the weight room more often with their peers and are immersed into study hall sooner.

"I don't think it's right to hold a kid back because he's younger," Benson said. "You get them producing right away. ... It allows us to get more out of them at a younger age."

Highland assistant coach Brandon Winn says the 6-4, 190-pound Fakahafua has some improving to do but a ton of potential. He is impressed with his frosh's athleticism and his keen ability to get up and catch the ball at its highest point. His catches against West were "jaw-dropping," Winn said. And he makes some very unfreshmanlike snags against his teammates.

"You wish you had instant replay at practice so you can see it again," Winn said.

As for Tafisi, Benson said the 6-3, 330-pounder "moves really, really well" for a kid his size. He also has smarts and a mature work ethic.

In other words, they've both earned their PT at Highland.

Bonneville coach Matt Williams, whose team plays the Rams in the 4A first round, said that scenario doesn't usually happen in Weber County. Because of the school district's varsity-only rule for freshmen, most kids play little league until they become sophomores.

"I've never even thought about (playing a freshman)," he said, "because it's so much different playing varsity."

Williams joked that he wishes his team would have faced Mountain Crest's young gun because the Mustangs' senior quarterback, Ethan Lofthouse, lit the Lakers up. No hurry. He's got three more years.

Not only does Tavo start at cornerback for Hunter, he also fills in as the backup punter. In the future, though, look for him to cause opponents grief in the Wolverines' backfield.

"He'll be the next record-breaking tailback," said Hunter coach Wes Wilcken.

Wilcken was hesitant to throw a freshman into the fire so quickly. But injuries — and players leaving for other programs — forced him into the situation.

"In a program like ours, you wouldn't think a ninth-grader could even scratch the surface," he said. But, Wilcken added, "I'm excited he's here and glad he's getting his gets now. I'm just glad I have three more years."

West coach Randy Schreiter had high hopes for a freshman who participated in June lifting with the Panthers, but he bolted to Cottonwood's program mid-summer.

Davis sophomore Josh Kariya, a starting lineman, played sparingly at the varsity level last year. But Darts coach Ryan Bishop says he tries to bring the kids up slowly.

"Not many have been Friday night standouts. ... We want to put them in situations to be successful. We don't want to overwhelm them," he said. "There's a certain learning curve there. We don't want to throw them to the wolves too fast."

It just turns out that this is a rare year in which some of the freshmen are the wolves.