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Between new schools and a new classification, Region 5 is sure to have a new football champion

Coming off a Region 1 co-championship last season, not to mention their recent successes in both the 5A and 4A classifications, the Roy Royals have seemingly gained that most desirable of traits, respect. Not any kind of respect, however. The kind of respect that is reserved for those elite football programs with winning traditions. That is, at least according to Roy head coach Fred Fernandes, the primary reason his team is favored to win the new incarnation of Region 5.

“I don’t really understand it,” said Fernandes. “I’d probably say Viewmont (should be the favorite) just because of the number of kids they have coming back. We are going to be really young on both sides of the ball, and it’ll be interesting to see how the kids react to the Friday night lights.”

The Royals lost a significant amount of starters from last year's squad, which, when coupled with a small senior class, guarantees ample playing time for their underclassmen.

Perhaps the most notable of the Royals newcomers is starting quarterback Jaxson Dart, a ninth-grader who has impressed Fernandes with his speed, efficiency and accuracy.

“He is really impressive for a kid of his age,” said Fernandes.

On the other side of the ball, the Royals will look to linebacker Jax Weaver, among others, to help maintain their status as an elite defense (the Royals had the fourth best scoring defense in 5A last season).

And yet even with such talent on his roster, Fernandes couldn’t be convinced his team should be favored.

“It’s gonna be a fun season,” said Fernandes. “If we can get through a tough preseason, I think we’ve got a shot to fight for the region championship. We are just completely untested and have little depth.”

The opposing coaches in Region 5 do not share Fernandes’ hesitation, however. Bountiful head coach Randy Johnson noted that “there are some great coaches in this region, Fernandes being one of them. His teams just always find a way to be successful.”

Woods Cross’ new leader, Andrew Fresques, added of the Royals, “they have a winning program and a winning tradition.”

It is Fresques' team that Region 5 coaches believe has the best shot to steal the title away from Roy, and for good reason.

The Wildcats return 11 starters from last season's playoff team, a squad that advanced to the 4A quarterfinals. With a returning starter at quarterback, Ashton Fornelius, and multiple returners along the offensive line as well as the skill positions, the Wildcats' offense looks to be seriously improved.

Of more import, however, is the defense. The Wildcats relied on the defense last season and will do much of the same in 2017.

“We have a great group of guys,” said Fresques. “Our D-Line is probably the strongest unit on our team. They can do it all. It is just a question of keeping them fresh. Our linebackers are big, smart kids that fly to the ball. They have looked great this summer. We have a ton of options in our secondary. The competition for the starting spots back there has been great. Our guys have really pushed one another to be the best players they can be.”

Fresques isn’t alone in praise of his defense. Viewmont head coach Scott Ditty noted that the Wildcats boast “one of, if not the best, defensive lines in the state.”

Speaking of Viewmont, the Vikings are no slouches. Coming off a co-region championship (Region 2), Viewmont returns immense talent and depth on offense, as well as a dynamic front seven on defense.

With the Vikings entering year four of the Ditty era, expectations, both inside and outside the program, are as high as they have been in years.

“The last couple of years we have made the playoffs, which is very positive,” said Ditty. “We have turned this program around. Now, we have to get it up a tier. We have to become one of the elite programs in the state. In order to do that, we have to advance deeper in the playoffs. The expectation here is to win, to win a championship, and we have the players to do it.”

High expectations are more than welcome at Box Elder High School, where the Bees are currently in the midst of a seven-year stretch of making the playoffs. Head coach Robbie Gunter, the architect of the run, is confident it will continue this season, despite a lack of experience on the Box Elder roster.

“There is a tradition, a feeling around here that is ‘Let’s do this. We can do this.’ Our coaches do a great job fostering that,” said Gunter. “We have a good group. It’s a small senior class, as far as numbers go, but they are working hard and we have a good junior group that we are gonna count on.”

The expected caboose in Region 5 is the Bountiful Braves, who are coming off a disappointing 2-8 season. Despite the lack of success last year, Johnson and the Braves are optimistic heading into the 2017 season.

“We have a fairly veteran team,” said Johnson. “We have a number of boys who started for us that are back and we are excited about what they bring to the table. We knew the first year (Johnson replaced four-time state champion Larry Wall as head coach last season) would be a bit of a challenge. Hopefully the experience we had is something that’ll pay off for us.”

No matter what happens once region play starts, or where teams inevitably fall, one thing is certain, Region 5 can play with the best of them.

“I think our four-seed will be able to play with, and beat, the number-one seed in any of the other regions,” said Fresques. “This is a tough, tough region.”

REGION 5 projections

Deseret News projections for Region 5 football teams in 2017

(Preseason rankings are based on coaches’ votes)

1. ROY: The Royals enter their new region as the prohibitive favorites, despite being one of the youngest and most inexperienced teams in Region 5. The Royals will rely heavily on a deep junior class, many of whom saw time as sophomores. Fullback Trace Tupe, one of the few seniors on the team, leads the way offensively, along with receivers Josh Gallegos and Kyrese Rowan. The strength of the offense looks likely to be the offensive line, which boasts Mercy Matautia, Dalton Sloan and Payton Smith. Defensively, linebacker Jax Weaver returns to lead what is left of the fourth best defense in all 5A last season. Rowan and Gallegos return to the secondary, while Matautia and Isaiah Huber will clog up the middle on the defensive line. The Royals are talented, and with their play above their experience level, a region championship should be in the cards. 2016 record: 7-3. Playoffs: Lost to American Fork 38-24 in 5A first round.

*****

2. WOODS CROSS: The move to 5A is little if at all daunting for the Wildcats, who are perhaps the most experienced team in the region. A playoff participant last year, Woods Cross returns its starting quarterback, Ashton Fornelius, star receiver Judge Samuelu and vital offensive linemen in Sam Clark and Jake Watkins. In total, Woods Cross has six returning starters on an offense seemingly guaranteed to be more dynamic than last season. The Wildcats are even better defensively, where they may have the best defensive line in the state. Watkins and Jamahl Kitiona headline that unit, while Nick Howe, Samuelu and Caden Brewster are all back in the secondary. The linebacking corps, while experienced, is chock full of talent, including Tanner Miller and Sam Nerdin. In total, the Wildcats are likely to make serious noise in Region 5 and 5A. 2016 record: 6-5. Playoffs: Lost to Springville 43-7 in 4A quarterfinals.

*****

3. VIEWMONT: The Vikings are loaded with talent, returning seven offensive starters and five defenders to go along with a highly successful rising junior class. Quarterback Davis Weir is back, having started more than half of last season for Viewmont, along with a deep and talented corps of receivers led by Randy Vazquez, Tyson Handley and Jackson Barber. The strength of the team will be on defense, where the Vikings boast talented linemen and linebackers to go along with a deep, if inexperienced, secondary. Chief among the returners are defensive lineman Jackson Strong, a team captain, and linebackers Chris Stubbs and Aaron Bredsgaurd. Newcomer Jay Wadley is also expected to show talent on what seems certain to be an elite defense. 2016 record: 6-5. Playoffs: Lost to Jordan 63-20 in 5A first round.

*****

4. BOX ELDER: Consistently solid and frequently a playoff participant, the Bees enter Region 5 with expectations of yet another playoff berth. With just five returning starters, one on offense and four on defense, it will be a tall task this season. On offense, center Ryan Gunn returns after starting as a sophomore. The Bees will look to senior quarterback Jeremy Kaleikini, as well as running backs Brock Hardy, Steve Handy and Bernard Pena to lead their attack. Defensively, Box Elder is led by Hardy, the team’s leading tackler at linebacker a year ago, Kaleikini, who was an elite safety in 2016, and defensive tackle Ethyn Butler. If the Bees' inexperienced starters make the expected leap, Box Elder will most likely make its eighth straight playoff appearance. 2016 record: 6-6. Playoffs: Lost to Maple Mountain 32-8 in 4A quarterfinals.

*****

5. BOUNTIFUL: The Braves return 12 starters, six on either side of the ball, including starting quarterback Spencer Jorgensen and defensive end Mason Fauatea. The strength of the team is the defense, where Bountiful has experienced playmakers in every position group. Chief among those are Fauatea, linebacker Cameron Hansen and safety Easton Allsop. Offensively the Braves have a host of skill players, such as Jaxon Wood and Tavin Dougher, as well as some offensive line experience with Seth Sudweeks and Kade Larsen. In total, the rampant experience on the Bountiful roster promises significant improvement from 2016, as well as a chance at a playoff berth. 2016 record: 2-8. Playoffs: Did not qualify.

EMAIL: twood@deseretnews.com