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10 things to keep on the radar heading into 2021 Utah high school football season

Between Orem’s continued dominance, Corner Canyon’s 40-game winning streak, different teams in different regions and the return of 1A football, interesting things are afoot entering the new season, which begins in earnest Friday

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Davis football players watch the game from the sidelines as they play Herriman in Herriman on Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020.

Davis football players watch the game from the sidelines as they play Herriman in Herriman on Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020. The 2021 prep sports seasons begin this week in Utah.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

With the 2021 high school football season officially kicking off this week, here’s a look at some intriguing storylines heading into a realignment season in which a couple dozen teams have changed classifications.

Normalcy, hopefully

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Fans fill the stands during the first half of a high school football game between American Fork and Skyridge at American Fork High School in American Fork on Friday, Sept. 20, 2019. In 2020, stands were less crowded than normal on Friday nights due to attendance restrictions because of the pandemic.

Colter Peterson, Deseret News

The 2020 high school football season was an adventure from start to finish. It began in June with players needing to pass a temperature check just to practice, and ended with players required to show a negative COVID-19 test to play in the championship game. Not all players and coaches passed either, as they finished the season watching their team play on TV.

In between, games were canceled, playoff games were forfeited, and most games were played in largely empty stadiums.

With the 2021 season slated to kick off this week, things have mostly returned to normal for high school football programs across the state. That will be obvious on the opening weekend.

Students will be back in full force in the stands to cheer on their peers. The sidelines will be packed with players again without roster restrictions. Bands will be back blaring the school fight song. Concession stands will be open.

The Friday Night Lights atmosphere that was sorely missing last year will be back. The hope is that it stays throughout the entire season and that restrictions don’t return midseason.

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Orem coach Gabe Sewell is lifted into the air as the team celebrates its win over Timpview in the 5A football state championship game at Cedar Valley High in Eagle Mountain on Friday, Nov. 20, 2020. The Tigers will look to make it five straight titles this season, a feat only accomplished by one other team in the last 100 years.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Orem on history’s doorstep

In the past 100 years of high school football in Utah, only one program has accomplished what the Orem Tigers have their eyes set on in 2021.

Winners of four-straight state championships (one in 4A and three in 5A), Orem will try to run its title streak to five straight this season and join Skyline (1995-99) as just the fourth program in state history to win at least five straight state championships. It would be just the second to accomplish the feat in the past century.

Coach Gabe Sewell knows it won’t be easy, especially with his team relying on a host of newcomers in 2021, not to mention East dropping down from 6A, which adds another quality team to the conversation.

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Lone Peak and Corner Canyon compete in the 6A state championship game at Cedar Valley High in Eagle Mountain on Friday, Nov. 20, 2020. The Chargers are riding a 40-game win streak into the new season.

Yukai Peng, Deseret News

Is Corner Canyon still invincible?

By now, everyone outside of Draper is probably sick of hearing about Corner Canyon football.

After all, the Chargers have won 40 straight games and three straight 6A state championships — and have rarely been challenged in the process.

Last season, the notoriety didn’t end after the season, either. Last year’s quarterback Jaxson Dart was named Deseret News Mr. Football recipient and signed with USC, and earlier this spring another former Corner Canyon QB, Zach Wilson, was drafted No. 2 overall by the New York Jets in the NFL draft.

With Wilson’s younger brother and another USC-bound quarterback competing for the QB job this year, Corner Canyon is a real threat to break the state record of 48 consecutive victories that Duchesne set from 2010 to 2014 in 1A football.

The only large school that’s ever won more than 30 straight games is Timpview, which won 36 straight from 2006 to 2009.

 

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East High School’s football field in Salt Lake City is pictured on Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020. Among the biggest realignment moves this season is East’s return to the 5A ranks.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Realignment’s biggest impact

With a two-year realignment cycle by the UHSAA, changes are the norm every few years. This year’s realignment is particularly noteworthy, though, with some marquee programs moving around and a couple dozen teams changing classifications.

East is moving down from 6A to 5A after four successful runs competing in 6A, which included three state semifinal appearances. Park City, meanwhile, is joining East in Region 6 as it makes the jump from 4A to 5A after strong performances the past three years.

Other notable changes in 6A include Farmington and Mountain Ridge bumping up from 5A, with Northridge and Jordan moving down to 5A. Roy is also making a notable region change from Region 1 to Region 2.

Class 4A shrinks from a 22-team classification to just 13 this season, as the eight-team central region has been redistributed, mostly into 5A’s new Region 7.

A few of those teams though — Ogden and Ben Lomond — are dropping into 3A. The 3A classification is very strong again this season, which doesn’t guarantee Ogden or Ben Lomond will have success despite the change.

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Duchesne’s Weston Poulson runs the ball through the line of scrimmage against Milford during the Utah State 1A championship game at Eccles Coliseum at Southern Utah University in Cedar City on Saturday, Nov. 11, 2017. After a two-year absence, 1A football is returning in 2021.

Adam Fondren, Deseret News

1A football is back

Realignment also brings with it the return of 1A football, and with it renewed hope for many programs.

With the elimination of 1A football the past two years and the consolidation of teams into just five classifications, Beaver suddenly found itself playing in the state’s smallest classification instead of the second-smallest classification.

It destroyed its 1A foes most nights, going undefeated the past two years and winning back-to-back 2A state titles.

Beaver is staying in 2A in 2021, while all the traditional 1A programs are moving down a classification.

Milford coach Thane Marshall summed up the sentiment of his 1A coaching peers.

“When the change happened two seasons ago, at first I think all of us 1A coaches thought we could compete with Beaver and we found out we were wrong. The teams that are 1A now basically competed with everyone except Beaver,” said Marshall.

Those Beaver teams the past two years were loaded, and this year’s team probably would’ve returned to earth a bit, but it’s not something contenders like Duchesne, Milford and North Summit have to worry about anymore.

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Highland coach Brody Benson hugs Sione Houma during game against Springville in the 4A football semifinals at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Friday, Nov. 12, 2010. After a successful 15-year run leading the Rams, Benson has taken his act to Woods Cross High, where he is the new head coach.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Coaching shake-up

Brody Benson spent a decade and a half roaming the sidelines of Highland High, but in 2021 he’s getting a fresh start at Woods Cross in the biggest coaching shake-up of the offseason.

Benson’s 15 years at Highland put him fifth on the list of coaches with the longest uninterrupted stretch serving as head coach at the same school. The top of that list remains unchanged as Manti’s Cole Meacham (22nd year), Pine View’s Ray Hosner (21st year), Bear River’s Chris Wise (20th year) and Juab’s Mike Bowring (17th year) are all back this season.

Woods Cross is one of only 18 schools with a new head coach this year, down a bit from the traditional 20-plus school with a new coach.

Among those coaches with a new coach is North Summit. After a 10-year hiatus, Jerre Holmes is returning to the sidelines where he helped the Braves previously win a pair of state titles.

North Summit is one of just five schools that is changing coaches after posting a winning record in 2020, joined by Davis, Mountain View, Skyline and Summit Academy.

Summit Academy is on that list after former coach Les Hamilton left to take the offensive coordinator job at Bingham and join the staff of long-time coaching rival Dave Peck.

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Pleasant Grove wide receiver Darrius Clemons makes a sliding catch on a long pass during a game against Maple Mountain at Pleasant Grove High in Pleasant Grove on Friday, Aug. 21, 2020. After transferring to Utah from Oregon for his junior season, Clemons has returned to his home state, where is considered the No. 1 recruit.

Steve Griffin, Deseret News

Shifting transfer dynamics

Every year one of the biggest hot-button issues in high school football in Utah is transfers. For decades and decades, players have been either enrolling at schools out of boundary or after the fact transferring to a school with perceived better opportunities.

Those transfers almost always involved in-state transfers, but COVID-19 changed that dynamic.

A year ago with many surrounding states cancelling their high school football seasons, quite a few students temporarily moved to Utah to avoid a lost season. The most notable was wide receiver Darrius Clemons, who played last season at Pleasant Grove after moving here from Oregon. He’s back in Oregon for his senior season and most recruiting services have him as the No. 1 recruit in Oregon.

The out-of-state transfer dynamic didn’t go away this offseason as several teams will benefit from players moving into Utah again.

Like the result of seeing the success from Jaxson Dart at Corner Canyon last year — which he parlayed into a scholarship at USC — Devin Brown transferred to Corner Canyon this summer from Arizona to compete for the starting job. Brown has already verbally committed to USC and in his new state he’s the new No. 1 recruit in Utah according to 247 Sports, supplanting Brighton linebacker Lander Barton.

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Mountain View’s Radi Stafford tries to tackle Park City’s Dylan Bauer during game in Orem on Friday, Sept. 27, 2019. After eight straight years of the state producing a 2,000-yard rusher, 2020 failed to see an RB reach that mark. The Miners’ Bauer was the last to eclipse the benchmark in 2019.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Annual Mr. 2000 watch

It’s no secret that high school football offenses have changed drastically in the past couple decades, shifting from the run to the pass.

Despite that dynamic, for the past decade there’s still been an elite running back each year that’s topped the 2,000-yard barrier — that is until last season as an eight-year streak of at least one 2,000 rusher came to a close.

Was it a one-off year, or a trend of things to come?

Here’s a look at the recent 2,000-yard rushers that this year’s backs will look to join.

Park City’s Dylan Bauer (2019), Grantsville’s Parker Thomas (2018); Granger’s Mosese Sonasi (2017); East’s Jaylen Warren; Alta’s Josh Davis (2016); Alta’s Davis (2015); Hunter’s Joseph Tiatia (2014); East’s Ula Tolutau (2013); and Pine View’s Prentiss Miller (2012).

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American Fork’s Maddux Madsen runs with the ball during a football game against East High School at East High School in Salt Lake City on Friday, Sept. 6, 2019. Entering his third year as the Cavemen’s starting quarterback, Madsen ranks in the top 10 in career passing yards, completions, attempts and touchdowns.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Records watch

A year after Dart and Noah Kjar vaulted up the state record book in several offensive categories, the player most likely to chase records this season is American Fork quarterback Maddux Madsen.

Entering his third year as American Fork’s starting quarterback, Madsen already ranks in the top 10 in career passing yards, completions, attempts and touchdowns.

A year ago he completed 279 of 485 passes for 3,943 yards and 49 touchdowns. If he matched those totals this season, Madsen would finish as the state record holder in career passing touchdowns and attempts and second in career completions and yards.

With great offensive weapons at his disposal, including Timpview transfer Carsen Ryan, Madsen should have another monster season as he chases career and state records.

No other career records will likely be threatened in 2020, but only time will tell what stars emerge in 2021 to chase season records.

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Bingham players celebrate as Saia Lomu (2) scores the team’s winning touchdown against Timpview during a game at Bingham High in South Jordan on Thursday, Sept. 3, 2020. Bingham is one of 17 teams projected to win a region title in 2020.

Yukai Peng, Deseret News

Expectations to live up to

Each year the Deseret News polls the state’s coaches regarding who they believe is the team to beat in their respective region.

This year’s region favorites are Weber, Kearns, Bingham, Corner Canyon, Woods Cross, East, Stansbury, Orem, Springville, Pine View, Ridgeline, Morgan, Juab, South Summit, San Juan, Duchesne and Milford.

Preseason projections don’t guarantee success, however. A year ago West and Bonneville were projected to finish in the middle of the pack in their respective regions but went on to claim region titles.