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High school football: East Leopards 2009 preview

An extreme makeover on offense promises to change the one element most associated with East football.

Soon after being hired as head coach, Sean Knox decided the time had arrived to bring the Leopard offense into the 21st century. Like an outdated TV or computer, the venerable Wing-T offense was consigned to the scrap heap. Knox installed in its place a sleeker, more modern, spread attack.

It is a risky move that could infuriate fans and alumni if the Leopards take a step back. But it could also propel an already successful program to new heights if the new offense works.

Knox has already claimed a victory in his first battle — convincing his players to embrace the changes.

"There's times when you think about the old plays," junior quarterback Tanner Curtis said. "But we've been going through this all summer and everybody is getting the hang of it. It's completely different, but everybody is working hard. People are stepping up and learning it."

Knox saw installing a more complex offense as a necessary step that should help his players hone their individual skills and could open doors to extending their playing careers beyond high school.

"I look at it academically," Knox said. "The quicker you can learn algebra, the better off you're going to be in the adult world or any facet of your life. So I look at implementing a college system in high school as something that can help them at the next level as well as help catapult them to the next level."

Don't make the mistake of embracing the spread offense as a signal that East is also embracing finesse football. Running the ball has long been ingrained into the Leopard football philosophy and Knox plans to make full use of his backfield.

"We still want to be able to move the football in a powerful fashion," Knox said. "That's where the spread kills you is when people run the ball."

Perhaps the biggest potential stumbling block is having only two returning starters. Breaking in new players will be a necessity on the line, among the receivers and in the backfield.

Even while change is a theme on offense, things should look familiar on defense. East only returns three defensive starters, but the Leopards retained last year's interim head coach, Larry Eldracher, to oversee the defense once again.

Things should be solid up front, with senior Freddy Tukuafu returning at defensive tackle. Tukuafu is explosive off the ball and uses his hands well — traits which have a habit of attracting attention from colleges. Knox said Tukuafu had been offered scholarships by three Division I schools — though he declined to say which ones had made the offers.

Joining Tukuafu on the line is defensive end Mote Iloa. J.J. Fonua and Ofa Hautau are expected to contribute at linebacker. In the secondary, Cody Pipkin has been a team leader over the summer and Knox expects nothing will change once the season starts.

Tukuafu noted that the defense isn't at the same level as last fall just yet. But he also said enough players are well versed in the defensive schemes to create a smooth transition for younger players stepping into bigger roles this fall.

"It will make it easier on the offense," Tukuafu said. "There's a lot of us who played last year and it will give coaches more time to focus on what they need to focus on instead of always helping the defense."

The effect defensive stability has cannot be discounted. Curtis knows East will be in good shape if the defense can resemble the unit that surrendered just 17.6 points per game a year ago.

"The offense can trust them," Curtis said. You're not worried sitting on the sideline when your defense is out there. You know they're going to do their job and get the ball back for the offense."

East Leopards at a glance:

Coach: Sean Knox is entering his first season as head coach of the Leopards.

Key Players: As the quarterback in Knox's new spread offense, Tanner Curtis will play a vital role in East's success. His targets will include tight end Damir Zulcic and receiver Mason Garcia. On defense, the Leopards will be led by defensive tackle Freddy Tukuafu and defensive back Cody Pipkin.

Strengths: Things look solid on defense with several key leaders back and some talented younger players ready to step up. If the unit can improve on what it did last fall, East could be one of the better defensive teams in 4A. Curtis should be an asset at quarterback with his athleticism and good decision-making skills.

Weaknesses: Replacing one offensive system with another may create some bumps as East gets the hang of its new spread look. The Leopards are breaking in nine new starters on offense, only adding to the learning curve. It also does not help matters to be playing four road games in the first five weeks.

Predicted Region 6 Finish: Third.

Postseason Possibilities: You never know what will happen with a new coach and a new offensive system coming into a program. The guess here is that East has enough talent to push for a playoff berth. The Leopards have a tough schedule to survive first. If they do that, they could surprise a team or two in the 4A tournament.

2009 Schedule:

Aug. 21 — at Snow Canyon, 7:00 p.m.

Aug. 28 — WEST JORDAN, 7:00 p.m.

Sept. 4 — at Mountain Crest, 7:00 p.m.

Sept. 11— at Stansbury, 7:00 p.m.

Sept. 18 — at Olympus, 7:00 p.m.

Sept. 25 — WOODS CROSS, 7:00 p.m.

Sept. 30 — BOUNTIFUL, 7:00 p.m.

Oct. 9 — SKYLINE, 7:00 p.m.

Oct. 16 — at Tooele, 7:00 p.m.

Oct. 22 — HIGHLAND, 7:00 p.m.