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High school football: Woods Cross Wildcats 2016 preview

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Note: Woods Cross finished with an 3-8 overall record in 2015 and tied for fourth in Region 5 with a 1-4 record. It lost a Region 5 play-in game and did not qualify for the playoffs.

Woods Cross 2015 offensive and defensive stats

WOODS CROSS — The 2015 season was a struggle for Woods Cross. After back to back seasons of 4A semifinal appearances, the Wildcats had to deal with massive amounts of roster turnover (around 30 players, including 20 who were starters, graduated) as well as a transition into the newly formed Region 5. As a result, Woods Cross suffered its worst season in coach Justin Spencer’s tenure.

“We didn’t do that well last year. We were really young (18 underclassmen started), so we return a large group of guys. They have put in the work and we are a year stronger and bigger and I think that will make a big difference,” Spencer said.

Despite their youth, the Wildcats still have to replace significant skill position players, particularly starting quarterback Ian Selin and top rusher Braxton Gunther. Selin threw for 1,170 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2015 and ran for 336 yards and a team-leading six scores. His replacement, Ashton Fornelius, is a rising junior who in spot duty last season threw for 312 yards and two touchdowns.

“He didn’t start last year but he did play starter type minutes in a few games, which gave him a lot of great experience,” Spencer said when asked about his quarterback. “I am really excited about Ashton.”

Gunther was the Wildcats' leading rusher in 2015, with a total of 533 yards and four touchdowns. He also contributed 239 yards receiving. His replacement is Jeremy Sperry, who in brief action last season ran for 73 yards.

“He (Jeremy) split time last season with Braxton, so he has some experience and he is a big kid. He played linebacker for us last season, so he is well-built for a running back. Jeremy is in line for a really big year. If we do what we need to, especially the offensive line, he will be a 1,000-yard rusher,” explained Spencer.

Spencer also noted that center Walker Holgreen, a three-year starter, is back and plays a vital role in the Wildcat offense.

“Walker is the anchor of our team,” Spencer said. “The center position is a key part of our offense (a spread offensive system) so we have big expectations for him.”

Wide receiver Judge Samuelu is a player Spencer has great confidence in heading into the season. “He is truly a Division I kid. He is 6 foot 3 inches and super athletic. He is the fastest kid on the team and he can do anything and everything. He can stretch the field and has great hands,” said Spencer.

On the defensive side of the ball, the Wildcats, who run a combination of a 4-2-5 and 4-3 defense, are adjusting to yet another new defensive coordinator. Erick Jacobsen comes in to replace Selu Alofipo, and the team has had to learn and adjust.

Defensive lineman Jackson McBride is back after a season in which he started every game. “We need Jackson to be the anchor of our front four and I believe he can be that,” said Spencer.

Linebacker Mitch Dalley is another defensive player of note. “He was the captain of our defense at linebacker,” said Spencer. “He played middle linebacker and outside linebacker for us last season, as well as every snap, and we look forward to the same this year.”

Spencer also noted that he has great confidence in his special teams, in particular his return game.

“I like our team. We don’t have tremendous stars, but we have a really solid group.”

Woods Cross Wildcats at a glance

Head coach: Justin Spencer is entering his fifth season as Woods Cross’ head coach. He has amassed a 34-15 record and led Woods Cross to back-to-back 4A semifinal appearances in 2013 and 2014. He’s a graduate of West High School and the University of Utah.

Offense (10 returning starters; spread offense)

Offensive coordinator: Justin Spencer (5th year)

Returning offensive starters

Walker Holgreen (C)

Chris Cologna (LT)

Davin Clement (RG)

Jake Watkins (RT)

Judge Samuelu (WR)

Caleb Simmons (TE)

Luke Rasband (TE)

Jeremy Sperry (RB)

Kender Bolkheim (RB)

Ashton Fornelius (QB)

Defense (8 returning starters; 4-2-5)

Defensive coordinator: Erick Jacobsen (1st year)

Returning defensive starters

Jaxon McBride (DL)

Davin Clement (DL)

Jack Liston (DL)

Millenium Alofipo (DL)

Jeremy Sperry (LB)

Mitch Dalley (LB)

Jeff Sperry (S)

Jace Feller (CB)

Coaches' preseason Region 5 straw poll: Fifth

Deseret News Region 5 prediction: Fourth

Bottom line: The Wildcats return 18 starters from last season’s team and internal expectations have risen as a result. There are skilled players on both sides of the ball with special emphasis on quarterback, running back and receiver. Despite the returning talent, the difficulty of successfully navigating Region 5 may be too much for a young team coming off a difficult season.

Last 5

2015 — 3-8 (1-4 in Region 5 — Missed playoffs)

2014 — 11-2 (6-0 in Region 6 — 4A semifinals)

2013 — 11-2 (5-1 in Region 6 — 4A semifinals)

2012 — 9-3 (4-1 in Region 6 — 4A quarterfinals)

2011 — 4-6 (2-3 in Region 6 — 4A first round)

Woods Cross coaching history

2012-current — Justin Spencer (34-15)

2011 — Nick Longshore (4-6)

2007-2010 — Fred Fernandes (18-20)

2005-2006 — Russ Jones (5-14)

2000-2004 — Alema Te'o (7-42)

1986-1999 — John Hanning (61-81)

1981-1985 — Larry Eldracher (18-29)

1977-1980 — Joseph Hawkins (13-22)

Deseret News First Team all-staters the past 10 years

2015 — Braxton Gunther, DB

2014 — Tomasi Giles, DL

2014 — Mason Newton, LB

2014 — Braxton Gunther, DB

2013 — Nick Peterson, OL

2013 — Deion Saumalu, LB

2013 — Xequille Harry, DB

2012 — Felipo Mokofisi, DL

2012 — Sean Barton, DB

2011 — Sean Barton, DB

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

Email: twood@bonneville.com