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High school football: Highland Rams have the ingredients to be tough again

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Note: Highland finished with an 8-4 record in 2009 and went 6-0 to win the Region 6 title. The Rams lost to Mountain Crest in the 4A Quarterfinals.

SALT LAKE CITY — All the basic ingredients seem to be in place for Highland to cook up another run to a region title.

A strong backfield anchored by a 1,000-yard rusher? Check.

Offensive and defensive lines loaded with talent, depth and experience? Check.

Both elements have always been crucial to the traditional recipe for success for the Rams. When it is tough up front and in the backfield, Highland can control the ball and impose its will on most teams it faces.

The players returning from last year's team that claimed the Region 6 title see no reason why they can't keep the ball rolling this fall.

"It doesn't seem any different from last year," senior fullback Toi Taufa said. "We didn't take a step down."

If Taufa plays anything close to the form he showed as a junior, the offense will definitely take a step forward.

Last fall, he rushed for 1,291 yards and 10 touchdowns on just 177 carries. That was good for a per carry average of 7.3 yards. Rams coach Brody Benson figures that Taufa will take his production up another level because he has done a good job of preparing for the season.

With Taufa in the backfield, Benson is also confident it will allow other backs to make their share of plays too.

"If we can establish our fullback and get teams really focusing on him, it's going to open it up for our quarterbacks to run," Benson said.

Running behind an experienced offensive line will make it twice as hard to contain Highland's running game. Right guard Ono Tafisi is a four-year starter. Hea Tuifua returns at center. Desmond Collins also returns up front at tight end.

It will also give Highland a little bit of time and space to break in a new quarterback. Thomas Barlow and Colby Earl have been battling for the job going into fall camp. It is a fairly even race at this point and both players could see some snaps in the first month of the season.

Experience up front will be a boon to the defense as well. Collins, Nate Fakahafua and Fihi Kafusi will anchor the defensive line after combining for 144 tackles a year ago. Collins also had 4.5 sacks in '09 and Fakahafua came up with a pair of interceptions.

Beyond them, Tafisi, Hea Tuifua and Reagan Hackett will see plenty of minutes on the line as Benson prefers a rotation of up to seven or eight players in the trenches in each game.

Creating depth and experience up front is crucial to their defensive success.

"As far as our style of play, everything starts up front for us," Benson said. "If we can get some guys that really want to get after it, it frees up our secondary to do their job."

Highland will get a chance to see how far it has progressed since last year when it faces Mountain Crest in the season opener.

The Mustangs burned the Ram defense twice last fall – ringing a combined 96 points in two victories over Highland. Against the Rams, Alex Kuresa passed for a total of 779 yards and six touchdowns while completing 44 of 60 passes.

One thing Highland vows to do is to not let Mountain Crest or any other team run roughshod over it again this fall.

"We're coming strong," Tafisi said. "We're coming at full speed. We're coming hard. We're not stopping."

Coach: Brody Benson enters his fifth season with the Rams. Benson, a Granger High alum, has compiled a 35-14 record in four seasons.

Offense: (6 returning starters, triple option)

Highland's run game is in good hands with Toi Taufa fresh off a junior season where he rushed for 1,291 yards and 10 touchdowns. A veteran offensive line – anchored by four-year starter Ono Tafisi – should be able to open plenty of holes for him. Thomas Barlow and Colby Earl are battling to start at quarterback going into fall camp. Both could potentially get snaps in the preseason.

Defense: (4 returning starters)

The Rams will have a definite advantage over most teams in terms of the depth, talent and experience on their line. Nate Fakahafua, Desmond Collins and Fihi Kafusi will anchor the line and Tafisi, Hea Tuifua, Reagan Hackett will be rotation regulars. The line will create a smooth transition while Highland breaks in a trio of new linebackers and two new cornerbacks.

Coaches preseason Region 6 straw poll: First

Deseret News Region 6 prediction: First

Bottom Line: Highland looks like it will be strong where it is always strong – in the backfield and along both lines. What that means is the Rams will be able to control the ball against most teams and pile up the victories. Highland should repeat as Region 6 champs, but must improve its pass defense to make a deep postseason run.

2010 Schedule:

Aug. 20 – at Mountain Crest, 7 p.m.

Aug. 27 – at Hunter, 7 p.m.

Sept. 3 – at Lone Peak, 7 p.m.

Sept 10 – BEAR RIVER, 7 p.m.

Sept. 17 – at Tooele, 7 p.m.

Sept. 24 – STANSBURY, 7 p.m.

Oct. 1 – at Olympus, 7 p.m.

Oct. 8 – BOUNTIFUL, 7 p.m.

Oct. 13 – at Woods Cross, 7 p.m.

Oct. 21 – EAST, 7 p.m.

e-mail: jcoon@desnews.com