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High school football: Kearns Cougars 2018 preview

Note: Kearns finished with a 9-2 overall record in 2017 and was first in Region 2 with a 4-0 record. It lost to Pleasant Grove 35-31 in the 6A first round.

Kearns 2017 Offensive and Defensive Stats

KEARNS — Bradley Gardner and Audrick Afatasi aren’t worried that the seniors who led the Kearns football team to a region title last season will not be on the field with them this fall.

That’s because what those seniors taught them stays in the Cougar locker room.

“I think we just need to set the culture the way it was last season,” said Gardner. “Then we can continue what gave us the success we had last season. The seniors we had last year really set what we believe makes us successful.”

In fact, it’s what those seniors gave to the program in 2017 that will help this year’s team leaders mentor so many new varsity contributors.

“The seniors last year were some of the hardest workers I’ve ever seen,” said quarterback Dakota Linde. “Coach always talks about leaving a legacy. We feel like we’re going to leave behind a lot of leadership, examples for others to follow because if they see us working hard and having success, they’re going to see hard work transfers into successful seasons.”

Afatasi said the idea of so many new contributors on the field makes him both excited and a bit nervous.

“I’m just going to do the best I can to coach up the young ones,” he said. “I think we have some athletes. There are some dogs out there that we can put into play.” Gardner said the inexperienced players have been impressive in the off-season.

“One thing that’s exciting,” Gardner said, “is that we have all these young guys willing to compete, willing to work so hard to get their spot.” For Linde, the hunger to contribute to the team’s success is significant after a broken collarbone meant missing most of the season.

“We’re definitely excited because we didn’t get a lot of opportunities last year,” the junior quarterback said of himself and junior wide receiver Austin Peay, who also missed most of the season with an injury. “We felt like we were some of the hardest workers, so this just pushes us to do more.”

None of the players said they feel uneasy about relying so heavily on new players.

“I think the guys that are stepping in are a lot of hard workers,” Linde said. “I trust them, just like they trust me.”

Head coach Matt Rickards said the coaches have worked as hard as the players this off-season.

“We’ve been busting our butts as coaches, as there is a lot of development going on,” he said. “Especially when we’ve been moving people to new positions. We have three linemen who haven’t played offensive line before who are going to be playing offensive line this year. And that just takes a lot of experience, a lot of failure to learn.”

Rickards said the play of both the offensive and defensive line, and many of the key players will contribute on both offense and defense, will be critical to the team’s success.

“Like everybody, we have to be healthy,” Rickards said. “We have some talent, we’re just inexperienced. But these guys have been working hard. If we can stay healthy, we just do what we do, as far as have a great attitude, great effort, we’ll be fine.”

And as for whether or not expectations change, Rickards said they don’t.

“We can compete for a region title,” he said.

Kearns Cougars at a glance

Coach: Matt Rickards is in his sixth year leading the Cougar football program. The Hunter and Weber State graduate owns a 31-22 head coaching record.

Kearns Offensive Snapshot

Offensive coordinator: Matt Rickards

2016 offensive production: 36.2 points per game (5th in 4A)

  • 3 returning starters
  • Multiple

Key offensive returning starters:

Returning offensive starters:

  • Bradley Gardner, Jr, OL
  • Dakota Linde, Jr, QB
  • Austin Perry, Jr, WR/S

Offensive newcomers to watch:

Rickards on Dakota Linde:

“Dakota is doing a great job as a leader. He broke his collarbone last year and didn’t get to play the whole season. The kid is just a great competitor. He loves to compete.”

Rickards on Bradley Gardner:

“We lost a lot of linemen last year, and we’ve got to replace them with guys who can get the job done. He is a guy who can get the job done.”

Rickards comments on replacing most of his linemen:

“In my opinion, it’s the most important position on the field. We’ve had a great offensive line for the last three or four years, and we want to continue that. WE’re taking guys we feel like can do that job mentally and effort-wise and will have the right attitude and developing those skills.”

Keys for Offensive success in 2018:

Kearns will have the same solid run game it's always had, but Linde’s return and the emergence of the team’s wide receivers will give them more versatility. The key is how the younger players on the team develop and contribute on the field, especially on the offensive and defensive lines.

Kearns Defensive Snapshot

Defensive coordinator: Tyler Garcia

2017 Defensive production: 28.7 ppg (17thin 4A)

  • Three returning starters
  • 4-2-5 type of defense

Key returning defensive starters:

  • Villiami Lehi, DE
  • Audrick Afatasi, LB
  • Kalux Manuo, LB

Defensive returning starters:

Defensive newcomers to watch:

Rickards comments on Audrick Afatasi:

"He was our defensive leader last year as a junior, even with all of that senior-heavy group. It’s his personality, the way he plays and his work ethic. The guys respect him, and he gets the job done."

Rickards comments on Mekhi Bright:

"Mekhi is a great competitor. I love his attitude. He is always pushing to get better and wants to go against the best. He did great at corner last year for us and had some big runs at camp at running back. We expect great things."

Rickards comments on coach Tyler Garcia:

"Tyler does a great job running our defense. He has established an identity with our defensive guys getting to the ball. We feel like we are a great tackling team as well.

Keys for defensive success in 2018:

The biggest issue is one of player development. The Cougars have leadership in linebacker Audrick Afatasi, defensive end Villiami Leha, and cornerback Kalux Manuo, so their success hinges on how the players develop as they rely on new players for big contributions.

Coaches preseason Region 2 straw poll: 1

Deseret News Region 2 prediction: 3

Key Region Game: vs. Cyprus, Sept. 21 (Week 6)

Bottom line: The Cougars have a lot of new faces on the field, but the same coaches that have built expectations of success, regardless of the personnel on the field. Still, their success comes down to how new, mostly inexperienced players step into roles of significant responsibility. The team will still rely on a group of hard-nosed running backs, but they may have a more versatile offense if the line develops as expected.

2018 Schedule

  • Aug. 17 — at Copper Hills, 7 p.m.
  • Aug. 24 — at West Jordan, 7 p.m.
  • Aug. 31 — at Cottonwood, 7 p.m.
  • Sept. 7 — OLYMPUS, 7 p.m.
  • Sept. 14 — at Lone Peak, 7 p.m.
  • Sept. 21 — CYPRUS, 7 p.m.
  • Sept. 28 — HUNTER, 7 p.m.
  • Oct. 5 — at Hillcrest, 7 p.m.
  • Oct. 12 — at Granger, 7 p.m.
  • Oct. 17 — RIVERTON, 7 p.m.

Felt’s Facts for Kearns

All-time record: 185-328-1 (52 years)

Region championships: 5 (1969, 1973 co, 1989 co, 1993, 2017)

Playoff appearances: 23

Current playoff appearance streak: 3 (2015-2017)

All-time playoff record: 11-21

State championships: 2 (1972, 1989)

State championship record: 2-0

Most played rivalry: 51 meetings with Granger dating back to 1966. Granger leads 35-16.

Felt’s Factoid(s): Cougar Al Romero booted a state-record 92-yard punt in 1976.


Last 5

  • 2017 — 9-2 (4-0 in Region 2 - 6A First round)
  • 2016 — 8-3 (4-1 in Region 6 – 4A First round)
  • 2015 — 8-3 (4-1 in Region 6 – 4A First round)
  • 2014 — 3-7 (2-4 in Region 6 -- Missed playoffs)
  • 2013 — 3-7 (2-4 in Region 6 -- Missed playoffs)


Kearns coaching history

  • 2013-current — Matt Rickards (31-22)
  • 2006-2012 — Bill Cosper (34-42)
  • 2002-2005 — Doug Bills (9-31)
  • 1997-2001 — Marvin Magalei (9-39)
  • 1990-1996 — Mike Sorich (18-50)
  • 1983-1989 — Tom Larsen (29-39)
  • 1980-1982 — Bruce Takeno (5-20)
  • 1978-1979 — Gil Cordova (2-16)
  • 1966-1977 — Frank Klekas (47-69)


Deseret News First Team all-staters the past 10 years

  • 2017 — Journey Buba, S
  • 2017 — Sese Felila, TB
  • 2016 — Sese Felila, RB
  • 2016 — Journey Buba, S
  • 2016 — Kaden Leonard, K
  • 2015 — Sione Finau, DB
  • 2012 — James Felila, RB

To view second team and honorable mention all-staters through the years, check out the Deseret News All-State Archives.