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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.