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High school football: Brighton Bengals 2009 preview

COTTONWOOD HEIGHTS — Since its championship game appearance in 2005, Brighton has not won a single playoff game, losing in the first round in 2006 and last season.

But the team believes this is the year for a return to prominence.

"We definitely are going to be able to compete," said receiver Jace Felix. "The last couple of years we played a lot of younger players and didn't have as much talent as we have now. We have worked harder this offseason than ever before and we are ready to make some noise."

For a program that made at least the quarterfinals for the first six years this decade, the team has struggled through some lean years. It has been not only lean in number of wins (8-23) but also in terms of players coming out for the program.

"With our freshmen playing with us, we have just over 100 kids," said coach Ryan Bullett, who is entering his fourth season at the helm. "Ten years ago, Brighton had almost that many seniors and juniors competing for playing time. The area isn't exactly growing in terms of high-school age kids. But even with the lower numbers, I expect that this year we have a team ready to compete. They are a great group of athletes and we will definitely be better than last year."

The Bengals return 10 starters from last season's fourth-place (2-8) team in Region 2. But along with the five starters on each side of the ball returning, there were several other players that got playing time.

"I think one of our biggest strengths will be our experience," said senior linebacker Dan Hanna. "We had some growing pains last year, but we have a lot of guys that played a lot and we are ready to make a jump up in the standings. We have the players this year that will win some games."

For Brighton to compete in the newly formed Region 4, it will have to find a way to score more points. The team scored 10 points or fewer in half its games last season, and was shutout twice. But Bullett said that is one of the reasons for the guarded optimism this year.

"We should be much better on offense," he said. "Too many times last year we couldn't move the ball and put our defense in some bad spots. If the other team is running twice as many offensive plays as you are, you are not going to win a lot of games. We think with this group, we can fix that."

Felix is one of the team's best weapons. After spending much of last year at quarterback, he is back to his natural receiver position, and glad to be there.

"I like it much better," Felix said. "I didn't mind playing quarterback because that is where the team needed me, but I like playing my natural position and helping out the team there."

Moses Lotulelei is another player the team is counting on to make big plays, and he should find the going easier this season with three of the big guys up front back opening holes. Ricky Heimuli, J.T. Strong and Bradley Corser are offensive and defensive lineman that started in '08. They are all back bigger, stronger and with more knowledge of how to play at this level.

"Our line is going to be pretty good," said Strong. "We all know each other better, and we have all worked hard to improve. I think that if we can step up and play better than last season, we will be a good team."

On defense the Bengals should be stout. Besides some big guys back up front, Hanna and Alex Whittingham have experience and talent in the linebacking crew. Felix will anchor the secondary as the team tries to gel on that side of the ball.

If the team can stay healthy, which may be the most important issue for the Bengals with limited depth, Brighton will fight for a playoff spot. With a few bad breaks or some players missing time, a return to the 5A spotlight may still be a pipe dream.

Brighton Bengals at a glance

Coach: Ryan Bullett is entering his fourth season as the head coach. In college, the fourth season is supposed to be when a coach is judged, giving the program time to adjust to the new style. The Hillcrest grad has an 8-23 mark in three seasons and his looking for improvement..

Key Players: The Bengals have 10 returning starters, five on each side of the ball. Jace Felix will be a three-year starter, and after filling in as quarterback last season, is returning to his more natural receiver position. Ricky Heimuli has received the most publicity as a college prospect on the offensive and defensive lines. Alex Whittingham will also be a three-year starter at linebacker, and Dan Hanna joins him as an impact player at fullback and linebacker. J.T. Strong and Brad Corser are also returning starters back on the lines. Moses Lotulelei will be a threat any time he touches the football.

Strengths: It is rare to ever hear a coach say that one of his team's strengths is going to be experience, but along with 10 returning starters, Brighton played a lot of young players that now know what it takes to get it done at the varsity level.

Weaknesses: Depth. It is hard for a team with players going both ways to compete against guys that are well rested. Brighton's numbers are still not as strong as it would like, and unfortunately, that means some guys are going to be out on the field for long stretches.

Last year: 2-9, lost in the first round of the 5A state playoffs.

Prediction Region 4 finish: Sixth

Postseason possibilities: After squeezing in last season as a No. 4 seed, the Bengals are looking to at least duplicate that feat. But with a brutal region, they will be fighting for every win and simply making the playoffs would be a good accomplishment for this team.

2009 Schedule:

Aug. 21 — DAVIS 7 p.m.

Aug. 28 — at Taylorsville 7 p.m.

Sept. 4 — at Hunter 7 p.m.

Sept. 11 — at Lone Peak7 p.m.

Sept. 18 — ALTA 7 p.m.

Sept. 30 — at Hillcrest 7 p.m.

Oct. 9 — PLEASANT GROVE 7 p.m.

Oct. 14 — at American Fork 7 p.m.

Oct. 23 — JORDAN 7 p.m