KEARNS — The senior class that graduated out of Kearns' football program after last season was a special one, a group of guys who played on the varsity team over several seasons and helped make Kearns football respectable again.
Accordingly, it will be extremely difficult to replace them and everything they brought to the table, both on the field and off it.
But fourth-year coach Bill Cosper thinks he's got a class of up-and-coming players who can help fill the voids those left behind and help the Cougars continue to take steps forward.
With a pretty good group of juniors and seniors trying to lead the way this fall, Cosper believes his underclassmen have the potential to be similar to the group that graduated last summer — this year and beyond.
"These younger kids that are freshmen and sophomores very similar to the group (that graduated) when those kids were sophomores," said Cosper. "There's some talented guys there. It's just a matter of them maturing and coming along."
Cosper has seven returning starters on defense but only two returners on offense, and he knew going into this past summer that several of his sophomores would probably earn varsity time this fall.
He conditioned them accordingly.
"We weren't very nice to them in the summer," he said. "We killed them. We averaged probably 75 kids a day in summer workouts for our conditioning, and it was tough conditioning.
"We pushed those young kids because we had to. They're the guys that are gonna have to step up. They're gonna have to have some adversity and be able to push themselves through that adversity."
So far, junior QB J.R. Finai, who started last year as a sophomore, likes what he sees from the underclassmen.
"As far as young guys (go) that are coming in, they're really talented guys," said Finai, who had offseason surgery on both of his feet to correct a condition that caused his toes to curl up.
"They've been working hard all summer, and they deserve the jobs. All it takes is a few games at that varsity level, and we'll be good to go."
Having Finai lead the way on offense will definitely help, but especially early on, Cosper recognizes he'll be counting on his opportunistic defense, which returns with most of its front-seven intact, to keep the Cougars in games.
The defensive guys seem ready for that challenge.
"There's some big shoes to fill (on defense), but then again, a lot of the pieces are still in there," said senior linebacker James Bernard. "We've just got to find some others to fill those holes, and (then) we'll be looking to knock some heads. That's what we're made for — defense."
What should also help Kearns this fall is a refurbished stadium, as the Granite School District footed the cost to make badly needed improvements to Kearns' home field.
New stands have been erected on the east side of the field, the press box has been expanded, two new concessions buildings are going up and the aging bleachers on the west side of the field are being refurbished.
Kearns Cougars at a glance
Coach: Bill Cosper takes a better-than-it-sounds 14-18 record into his fourth season as head coach of the Cougars' program.
Key players: Especially early on, defense will be key for Kearns. To that end, senior linebacker James Bernard will help lead the way. He's joined by fellow returning starters Justyn Searle, Siosifa Pekipaki, Eddie Saleapaga and D'Andre' Galvin in the front seven. Mantin Smith and Dennis Phaophongsavath are returning starters in the secondary. On offense, QB J.R. Finai and Inoke Felila are both returning starters and will look to lead the way on that side of the ball.
Strengths: Kearns should be very solid on defense, with most of the front seven returning from last season. And up and down the roster, it seems that there's talent wherever you look. The Cougars should also benefit from the stability and structure that Cosper has brought to the table.
Weaknesses: The Cougars have just two returning starters on offense, and the learning curve, especially early in the season, could be very steep.
Last year: 6-5, lost in the first round.
Predicted Region 3 finish: Fourth.
Postseason possibilities: Kearns should get better and better as the season goes along, and if that happens, winning a postseason game isn't an impossibility.
Aug. 21 — at Hunter, 7 p.m.
Aug. 28 — CYPRUS, 7 p.m.
Sep. 4 — GRANGER, 7 p.m.
Sep. 11 — RIVERTON, 7 p.m.
Sep. 18 — at Taylorsville, 7 p.m.
Sep. 24 — BINGHAM, 7 p.m.
Sep. 30 — at Sky View, 7 p.m.
Oct. 9 — at Hillcrest, 7 p.m.
Oct. 16 — COPPER HILLS, 7 p.m.
Oct. 22 — at West Jordan, 7 p.m.