Week 1 blockbuster
The 2018 high school football season officially kicks off this week with KJZZ’s Thursday Night Game of the Week, and it might be the best game of the entire season.
Defending 6A state champion Bingham travels to defending 4A state champion Orem, and both teams are loaded with big-time college football talent. College coaches aren’t allowed to attend games until September, otherwise there might be a couple dozen of them dotting the sideline as well.
According to Scout.com’s rankings, Orem has five of the top 30 senior players in Utah heading into the season, while Bingham has four. None of the Bingham players have verbally committed anywhere yet, but two of Orem’s players have committed, headlined by receiver Puka Nacua.
And if Orem weren’t already loaded enough, former Desert Hills standout Noah Sewell moved to Utah County from St. George, and the linebacker is regarded as the top junior in the state. He has offers from just about every Pac-12 school, not to mention Alabama and Florida State.
Thursday’s opener ultimately is just a nonregion game, but both teams have aspirations of rising in the national rankings, and opening the season by beating another nationally recognized program would be a huge first step.
Oh yeah, Bingham-East showdown a week later
With so much attention being showered on the Week 1 showdown between Orem and Bingham, it’s easy to forget that Bingham and East square off one week later.
Bingham vs. East was the most-hyped game during the 2017 season, both times. Bingham beat East 48-17 in last year’s Week 2 showdown. Even though the second meeting was closer, Bingham prevailed again 27-14 in the championship game.
Bingham’s defense is loaded again this year, but the offense only returns one starter. East, meanwhile, is breaking in almost an entirely new offensive line this season, and just how good the timing is for that triple-option remains to be seen.
The Miners have won 26 straight games against in-state opponents, but, if they aren't sharp early, they could be staring at an 0-2 start.
East has its own obstacles besides Bingham. In Week 4, it travels to Allen, Texas, a team ranked No. 4 nationally in MaxPreps Xcellent 25 rankings. Bingham is ranked 16th in those same rankings.
Puka Nacua chasing the record books
A year ago, while his Orem teammates were out on the practice field preparing to take on Mountain Crest in the 4A title game, Puka Nacua was nowhere to be found. The junior wide receiver was stuck in the training room getting treatment on his sprained ankle.
The daily treatment helped him play in that state championship game and contribute to the school’s first state title since 1994 as he caught four passes for 75 yards and a touchdown.
Realistically though, it was a very un-Nacua-like performance and likely cost him a coveted state record.
Nacua needed 155 receiving yards in the championship to break the single-season receiving yards state record of 1,769 which dated back to 1989. He only got halfway there.
A different injury forced him to miss two other games during the regular season, but he still finished the season with 1,691 yards and an eye-popping 140 yards per game. It’s obvious why so many colleges offered scholarships to Nacua, who verbally committed to USC this summer.
If Nacua can avoid the training room in 2018, that 29-year-old state record may finally fall.
Even if Nacua doesn’t break that record, it’s hard to imagine the record lasting much longer in this age of fast-paced spread offenses. From 2006 to 2015, an average of just 6.7 receivers had over 1,000 yards per season. Two years ago, 14 receivers eclipsed that mark, and last year Nacua was one of 15 to go over that total.
Stability in the coaching ranks
Excluding the crazy coaching turnover rate in Southern Utah, this offseason has been a relatively quiet one for coaching changes around the state.
Only 16 schools have a new head football coach this season, which includes new school Farmington. It’s the fewest changes since there were also 16 in 2011, and it breaks up the wild trend of 26 new coaches last year and 29 the year before.
Four of the 16 new coaches have previous head coaching experience in Utah, Timpview’s Andy Stokes, Dixie’s Blaine Monkres, Layton’s Tyler Gladwell and Hurricane’s Skyler Miller.
Three of those four changes directly impacted Region 9.
Stokes left Dixie to take the vacated job at Timpview, and a familiar face took his place as Monkres returned to Dixie, where he led the program to state titles in 2012 and 2014.
Miller left Canyon View to accept the open Hurricane job, with Chris Sawyers taking his place at Canyon View. The fourth change in Region 9 involves Desert Hills, with Mark Murdoch taking over for Carl Franke.
Two coaches with 20-plus years' head coaching experience stepped down after last season — Uintah’s Todd Peacock and Hunter’s Scott Henderson — which lowers the 20-plus club to just five coaches.
They are Juan Diego’s John Colosimo (31st), Dixie’s Monkres (28 years), Pleasant Grove’s Mark Wootton (28 years) and Juab’s Mike Bowring (22 years).
A new face joins the 20-year club this year as Roy’s Fred Fernandes heads into his 20th as a head coach in Utah. He won’t begin the 2018 season on the sideline though as he underwent successful open heart surgery on Wednesday after suffering a heart attack at practice on Monday.
One of Fernandes’ close friends confirmed to the Deseret News that the surgery went well and that Fernandes hopes to be back on the sidelines in three weeks.
What can QBs do for an encore?
From 2008 to 2016, there was an average of just three quarterbacks each season who eclipsed the 3,000-yard mark, and never more than four in the same season.
Staggeringly, that average production doubled and tripled over the past two years.
Six quarterbacks threw for over 3,000 yards in 2016, and last season there were a whopping nine quarterbacks who eclipsed that mark.
Is that type of offensive output sustainable from year to year, or was it giant aberration due for a defensive correction in 2018? Orem’s Cooper Legas and South Summit’s Kael Atkinson were among the 3,000 club last year and could easily duplicate that feat. Mountain Crest’s Brady Hall came close with 2,942 yards.
Beyond those three, there isn’t a proven QB commodity heading into the 2018 season who is expected to dominate. We’ll know in a couple of weeks if that’s because of a dropoff in talent or merely because some elite QBs were just waiting in the wings for their turn to shine.
Bingham’s stacked defense
During Bingham’s decade of dominance, there’s been one constant — defense. The notion that defense wins championships has rung true as the Miners have won six of the past 10 state championships, including four of the past five.
During that stretch, Bingham has never given up more than 18.2 ppg, and in the past five years its average points allowed has never gone above two touchdowns — 10.1, 11.6, 10.6, 7.7 and 13.8.
Here’s the scary thing, the 2018 defense might be the best of the bunch.
According to the recruiting rankings on Rivals.com, three of Utah’s 10 best seniors this season are Bingham defensive players, Lolani Langi, Simote Pepa and Junior Tafuna.
The program has never had three defensive players ranked in the top 10 in the recruiting service rankings over the past decade. The most it has ever had ranked in the top 10 was two, which happened twice during state championship seasons in 2010 and 2016.
Langi, Pepa and Tafuna are among six returning starters for Bingham, which figures to dominate again this season.
Mr. 2,000 watch
Despite the shifting nature of offenses throwing the ball, many teams are still pounding the rock on the ground with great success. In fact, over the past seven seasons there has been at last one running back eclipse 2,000 yards.
Last year, Granger’s Mosese Sonasi kept the streak going as he rushed for 2,150 yards in just 10 games.
The previous year, East’s Jaylen Warren (3,099) and Alta’s Josh Davis (2,645) both shattered the 2,000 barrier, and their efforts rank as the two best seasons in state history.
In 2012, Pine View’s Prentiss Miller rushed for 2,150 yards, followed by East’s Ula Tulutau with a whopping 2,465 yards in 2013.
In 2014, Hunter’s Joseph Tiatia ripped off 2,205 yards. Alta’s Davis topped 2,077 yards in 2015.
Who will keep the streak going in 2018?
Taylorsville quarterback Dane Leituala could potentially break the record, and, with East’s dominant rushing offenses in recent years, if Charlie Vincent or Leki Molisi get enough carries, they could potentially approach 2,000.
New era in Davis County
Since Northridge opened its doors in 1992, there have been 14 large new high schools built along the Wasatch Front from Utah County to Cache County, but only one of those was in Davis County with Syracuse opening in 2007.
With the vast amount of growth west of I-15 near Lagoon over the past decade though, athletics in Davis County are about to get a major facelift.
Farmington High School is ready to open its doors on Aug. 22, and it has cut into the decades-old boundaries of both Davis and Viewmont high schools.
Davis is traditionally one of the premier athletic schools in the state’s largest classification, but Farmington’s arrival will inevitably dilute the talent pool. In football, Davis missed the playoffs last year in a rare down year, but was it a one-off occurrence or part of a larger trend that will play out in the coming years?
Dane Leituala’s last hurrah
Austin Kafentzis’s state record 19,678 yards of total offense for Jordan from 2011 to 2014 will probably never be broken. No. 2 will likely fall sometime this September though.
Dane Leituala is entering his fourth season as Taylorsville’s starting QB, and, so far in his career, he’s racked up 11,368 yards of total offense, which ranks fourth all-time in state history.
He’s only eight yards behind Lehi’s Cammon Cooper (2014-2017) for third place. Mountain Crest’s Alex Kuresa (2007-2010) racked up 12,917 yards during his four years as a starter.
Leituala needs 1,550 yards to surpass Kuresa and move into second place all by himself. Considering he’s averaging 406 combined rushing yards and passing yards per game in his career, that record will likely fall in Week 4 or 5 this season.
Throw expectations out the window
The build up to any football season — pro, college or high school — is all about hype and talking about expectations.
Once the games begin, though, those lofty expectations aren’t going to help anyone make a key tackle on third down or punch the ball over the goal line on fourth down. It’s all about execution, something six of last year’s 12 region champs in 6A, 5A and 4A proved.
Weber, Viewmont, Lehi, Springville, Dixie and Sky View weren’t projected as region favorites in the Deseret News preseason coaches rankings a year ago, but they went on to win the region title anyway.
Lehi not only won the Region 6 title, but the 5A state title as well. Weber went undefeated in region play for its first outright region title since 1964.
Here’s a look at the 16 projected region champs who hope the preseason recognition holds true — Syracuse, Kearns, East, Bingham, Roy, Highland, Timpview, Springville, Dixie, Orem, Stansbury, Sky View, Morgan, Juan Diego, South Summit, Beaver, Duchesne and Kanab.