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No. 8-ranked Weber State working to replace key players from last year's successful campaign

Weber State head coach Jay Hill reacts after a play during game against Idaho State on Saturday, Nov. 18, 2017 in Ogden, Utah. (Matt Herp/Standard-Examiner via AP)
Weber State head coach Jay Hill reacts after a play during game against Idaho State on Saturday, Nov. 18, 2017 in Ogden, Utah. (Matt Herp/Standard-Examiner via AP)
MATT HERP/Standard-Examiner, Standard-Examiner

OGDEN — After its best finish in school history in 2017, the Weber State football team earned its highest preseason ranking ever in 2018.

That might be thrilling for fans, media and even some players, but not Weber State head coach Jay Hill.

“I don’t put any stock in them,” he said. “Every year, you see teams ranked highly and they don’t even finish in the top 25. And then there are teams that are not ranked, who have great seasons. Each year is so different, and you don’t know what will happen.”

That is not to say he doesn’t appreciate what a No. 8 ranking means to the players and coaches who’ve helped build the program into one of the most consistent FCS teams.

2018 WSU schedule
2018 WSU schedule
Joseph Tolman

“I want the players recognized,” Hill said of the preseason recognitions. “I think this is a great recognition to them that people see we’ve built a good program.”

The Wildcats will open their season at Utah — the program where Hill began his coaching career. Most of last year’s team returns, but filling the void left by those players who left the program is about more than numbers.

“The critical piece to this year will be ‘How are we going to replace those four or five key guys we lost?’” he said. “We’re returning five All-Americans from last year’s team. But this team is extremely young. … They’re very talented, but they’re young.”

Hill said the Wildcats will start nine offensive players who are freshmen or sophomores. It’s something he said he’s never experienced as a head coach.

“They’re very young, but a lot of them are guys like Rashid Shaheed,” he said of the sophomore wide receiver who played in all 14 games and earned first-team All-American honors and first-team All-Big Sky honors and was also named the top Collegiate Return Specialist by the FCS athletic directors. “We have three starting offensive linemen who were freshmen last year. The question is whether these guys can go out and do it again. How will the freshmen and sophomore handle the (competition)? If they handle it like veteran guys, it’s going to be a really good season.”

One of those key losses was quarterback Stefan Cantwell.

The competition to start in the season opener at Rice-Eccles was between a transfer and a redshirt freshman.

Redshirt freshman Kaden Jenks was named the starter Monday morning. He has the ability to run the ball, as well as pass very effectively.

His backup will be sophomore Jake Constantine was a three-star recruit out of Camarillo, California. He signed with Boise State in 2016 and used his redshirt with the Broncos. He transferred to Ventura College and earned first-team All-California honors as a freshman, after throwing for 2,385 yards and 28 touchdowns. He averaged more than 200 yards per game.

Hill said the Wildcats hope to use senior quarterback Rathen Ricedorff when he recovers from an injury later this season, as well.

The Wildcats named five captains — three offensive players and two defensive athletes. Senior running back Treshawn Garrett, senior fullback Brady May, senior offensive lineman Iosua Opeta, junior defensive end Jonah Williams, and senior All-American linebacker LeGrand Toia were chosen to be official leaders of the team, although Hill said there are seven or eight others who lead in similar ways.

Hill said that while the team’s leadership has been outstanding thus far, the real tests lie ahead.

“I don’t think anyone knows exactly what their leadership is like at this point,” he said. “You find out when adversity strikes, and you gotta go through some stuff, that’s when you find out how good you are. I think every team is in the same boat.” He looks forward to seeing how the team handles both challenges and success.

“I’m excited to see how this team handles adversity,” he said. “I’m looking forward to seeing how this team is going to handle success. And I’m excited to watch those who are getting opportunities. We didn’t lose very many players, but the ones we lost were critical difference-makers.”