SALT LAKE CITY — A quick search online for synonyms of the word uncertainty reveals upward of 50 different alternatives.
Every single one of them — along with every possible synonym for excitement — have likely been uttered in the past week by players and coaches as high school football teams across the state of Utah prepare for the start of the season this week.
In fact, the Davis at Herriman football game this Thursday night will be the first high school football game in the entire country. The following night, 52 additional games will be played on the first Friday Night Lights of the season.
As excited as everyone is to get sports going again, the realities are that because of COVID-19, the season will be anything but normal.
Here’s a look at some of the most intriguing storylines heading into the 2020 season, including some that have nothing to do with the current global pandemic and its impact on football.
Not if, but when
It seems that every couple days in Major League Baseball — the only major U.S. sport that didn’t restart in a bubble — there’s a new story of a team postponing a game or a series because someone affiliated with the team tested positive for COVID-19.
It’s an inevitability the same thing will happen to high school football teams. It affected numerous teams throughout the summer, and depending on the policy of their school district they either shut down practice for a week or two, or took extra precautions and practiced through it.
What will happen when players test positive during the regular season, or when schools return to in-person learning again and the inevitable outbreaks occurs?
There’s no easy answer because 37 different school districts will oversee how the 107 football teams will respond to positive cases.
“You’re looking at the MLB and kind of how that’s gone about and they’re not in a bubble system and they’re shutting teams down. It all goes back to the response and the number of positive tests at our school,” said Riverton coach Jody Morgan, who is also the head of the Utah High School Football Coaches Association.
“I think we’re going to get out of the gate, I just don’t know if we’re going to keep running.”
That’s the grey cloud hanging over the start of the season. With how quickly schools closed last spring, followed quickly by spring sports cancellation, it’s a cautionary tale about how quickly the football season could end if there’s a surge in cases across the state.
It’s something Herriman coach Dustin Pearce reminds his players about, to do their part and be socially responsible.
“We’re excited for the opportunity for the kids. Our state the last three or four weeks as far as masking up, that’s helped out a lot with our numbers going down. How true that is, who knows. It’s just one of those things we’re trying to follow the rules and make sure we don’t ruin it for high school kids so they have an opportunity to play,” said Pearce.
Smaller roster availability
High school football coaches will have to make NFL-type decisions in 2020.
In the past, a program could suit up as many players as it wanted on Friday nights, which meant very crowded sidelines often with sophomores who were simply there to take in the varsity experience from the sidelines.
This year, only 50 players will be allowed on the sidelines according to UHSAA guidelines, which will force coaches to analyze rosters ahead of time and make sure they have the necessary depth at every position in the case of injuries.
“I’m kind of looking at what we did when I was coaching at SUU with our travel roster, but it’s a little bit smaller,” said Herriman’s Pearce. “Especially home games I try and reward kids who play well on Thursday an opportunity to dress for the varsity game just to see it and be around it, knowing what it’s like in the locker room, and now that’s going to be taken away little bit.”
The UHSAA has laid out guidelines in which a team can request 60 players be allowed to suit up, but Morgan had his doubts about how feasible that process would be.
There’s no limit on the number of coaches that can be on the sideline, but everyone will be encouraged to be socially distant and many coaches, refs and chain crew members may opt to wear face masks.
The coaches box will remain inside the 25-yard lines, but to help with social distancing players will be allowed to spread out between the 10-yard lines.
Fans and ticketing
The Deseret News spoke with coaches from 10 different school districts this weekend, and even though each district (and in many cases each school) will have varying rules, there seems to be a consensus among all about limited capacity, online ticket sales, mask requirements to enter the games and social distancing requirements.
Jordan School District will be allotting players four tickets each.
Alpine School District is planning limiting capacity to 25%.
Davis School District is planning on 50% capacity.
Canyons School District is limiting capacity to 25% with assigned seating.
In Washington School District, Dixie and Crimson Cliffs are the only schools with home games in Week 1, and they’re going to experiment with putting students on the track behind the end zones to create more room in the stands.
Granite School District is planning on starting with player ticket allotment and then selling additional tickets online.
Ogden School District is allotting four tickets per player, then student tickets. Alternating rows will be roped off.
Salt Lake School District teams won’t be allowed to have fans this year.
Park City coach Josh Montzingo said his district was still ironing out the details.
RPI index adjustments
Last year, the UHSAA adopted RPI rankings for playoff seedings, with all teams qualifying for the playoffs. Football coaches seemed to be the most outspoken about some of its problems, specifically coaches in 5A.
While a top-5 seeded team ended up winning titles in the other four classifications, No. 12 seed Orem beat No. 10 seed Timpview in the 5A championship.
Three factors — only one COVID related — will likely prevent that from happening this year.
The biggest change is how the UHSAA calculates teams playing teams from other classifications. Last season, the second game a team played against someone from either a lower or higher classification, it got either less credit or more credit in the RPI rankings.
This year the UHSAA only has two classification categories for RPI purposes, 6A-3A and 2A-1A.
The second factor is a change in the RPI formula. In the inaugural season in 2019, the RPI index was calculated based 40% on a team’s winning percentage, 40% on an opponent’s winning percentage and 20% on an opponent’s opponents’ winning percentage.
This year the formula has been shifted to 45 percent, 45 percent and 10 percent.
The COVID-related impact in 2020 will be out-of-state teams. Some of Utah’s top programs try and play a game or two against quality programs out of state. Even though those games may help a team gain valuable experience, it hurt a team’s RPI’s ranking if they lose more than it helps. That played a big part of Orem’s No. 12 seed last year.
This season most of those games are canceled as other states are delay the start of their season. That in turn is forcing those upper-tier Utah teams to reschedule games against in-state competition.
One of the bigger challenges coaches have talked about this summer is water breaks. Every player needs to have their own water bottle. No one has been allowed to share water bottles or have shared water stations.
That will still be the case on game nights, and teams will likely be toying around with solutions that work best for their program in Week 1.
Timeouts have been extended from one minute to two minutes so ensure everyone stays hydrated with the new protocols.
Herriman coach Pearce, like other coaches, said he’s trying to decide if having the players use disposable water bottles is more efficient than having 50 labeled water bottles the players bring from home lining the sidelines.
Twenty-one programs will have new head coaches this season, down slightly from the 25 schools with new coaches last season.
Of the 21 coaches, two are returning to the same program they previously were the head coach of, five have previously been a head coach, while 14 are new head coaches entirely.
Bingham coach Dave Peck is returning for his 16th season as head coach after stepping down following a 15-year stint that ended in 2014.
At South Summit, Mike Grajek returns after a one-year hiatus. He previously coached from 2016 to 2018, winning two state titles.
The coaches with previous head-coaching experience are Tyler Gladwell (Woods Cross), Kirk Chambers (Provo), Andrew Fresques (Northridge), Fotu Katoa (Layton) and Phil Howa (Carbon).
The 14 new coaches are Jason Freckleton (Bountiful), Rodregis Smith (Jordan), Greg Williams (Juan Diego), Scott Feldman (Layton Christian), Jared Barlow (Morgan), Wyatt Mason (North Sevier), Ryan Heath (Parowan), Jeb Clark (Payson), Ryan Shaddix (Richfield), Travis Cox (Ridgeline), Jeff Higginson (Salem Hills), Dustin Smith (Spanish Fork), Austin Heaps (Timpanogos) and Justin Decol (Uintah).
Annual Mr. 2000 watch
It was only two yards, but those two extra yards that Park City’s Dylan Bauer rushed for in the 4A state championship game pushed his total up to 2,002 yards last season.
It marked the eighth straight season a running back in Utah has rushed for over 2,000 yards.
He joined a special group of players that includes: 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 Ulu Tolutau (2013) and Pine View’s Prentiss Miller (2012) as players to rush for over 2,000 yards.
The player most likely to join that elite company in 2020 is East running back Amone Amini, who rushed for roughly 1,900 yards as a freshman last season.
Living up to expectations
The 2019 season unfolded how many coaches thought it would before the season even started.
Of the 16 teams the coaches pegged as region favorites, 12 went on to win the region title. The only teams that broke the mold were Syracuse in Region 1, Farmington in Region 5, Timpview and Orem in Region 7 and Grantsville in Region 13.
For this year’s region favorites, the success showed by last year’s favorites is great example of living up to the potential in 2020.
Here’s a look at the 16 projected region champs who hope the preseason recognition holds true — Syracuse, Kearns, Bingham, Corner Canyon, Farmington, Olympus, Orem, Maple Mountain, Snow Canyon, Park City, Sky View, Richfield, Morgan, Juab, Duchesne and Beaver.
Elite lineman talent continues
Year in and year out, the state of Utah produces elite talent on the offensive and defensive lines that out-of-state coaches flock to recruit.
That’s no different in 2020.
Of the 20 top recruits in Utah on the 247sports.com, 11 are offensive and defensive lineman, including four of the top five.
Heading that group is Orem’s Kingsley Suamataia, a tackle who’s regarded as the best recruit in Utah and the ninth-best offensive tackle recruit in the nation.
Also in the top five are Timpview’s Logan Fano, Corner Canyon’s Jackson Light and East’s Voi Tunuufi. The only recruit in the top five who isn’t a lineman is Timpview’s Raider Damuni, an athlete who plays offense and defense for the T-Birds.
Corner Canyon’s dominance
When top-ranked Corner Canyon opens the season in Week 1 against Farmington, it will be riding a 26-game winning streak that includes an undefeated 5A state championship season in 2018 and an undefeated 6A state championship season in 2019.
The 26-straight wins is tied for the sixth-longest streak in state history.
Corner Canyon’s 2020 schedule features some of the best teams in Utah again, and extending the streak is far from a given, but with another perfect regular season it would move into a tie with Timpview (2006-2009) for the second-longest streak in state history.
Duchesne owns the state record of 48 straight wins that spanned 2010 to 2014.
Many eyes will be on Corner Canyon in Week 3 when it takes on No. 2 Bingham. ESPN recently picked up the game to show on its networks as it searches for meaningful games to broadcast with many states across the country delaying the start of their season.
Corner Canyon coach Eric Kjar is 37-1 in his three seasons at Corner Canyon.