SALT LAKE CITY — With the 2019 high school football season getting underway this week, here's a look at some of the most intriguing storylines heading into a realignment season that includes a revamped playoff qualification process.
RPI playoff seeding
The cookie-cutter approach to seeding state tournaments in Utah is a thing of the past.
The UHSAA adopted an RPI playoff seeding format for traditional team sports beginning this year, a major shift from the formulaic approach in past years.
The RPI index will be calculated based 40% on a team’s winning percentage, 40% on an opponent’s winning percentage and 20% on an opponents’ opponents’ winning percentage. Every team will also qualify for the playoffs, with the top teams earning first round byes.
It’s a drastic shift that naturally stirred up a lot of opinions among the coaches. Most of the coaches the Deseret News interviewed this summer were positive about the change, but many also expressed a wait-and-see approach.
One of the biggest complaints is the direct lack of reward for winning a region. In the big classifications winning a region title has always meant you’d host all your playoff games before the tourney shifted to a neutral site. Now there’s no direct reward for winning a region title, which coaches believe should still mean something.
As one coach said, he has control of his preseason schedule which can help him dictate strength of schedule, but in region play the state determines who everyone plays based on geography. That gives some teams a major competitive advantage based on the address of a school and not how they actually play on the field.
No system will please everyone, but the wait-and-see approach is the underlying theme among the football coaches.
Four returning champs moving up a classification
It’s a realignment year for the UHSAA, and the impact will be felt in every classification.
For starters, four of last year’s six champions are bumping up a classification. Secondly, the state dropped a classification for football only which will help prevent the type of dilution that’s been present the past two years.
In 6A, defending champ Lone Peak has defending champ company as 5A champ Corner Canyon gets bumped up a classification. Both are in the same super Region 4 along with the two runners-up in 6A and 5A last year — American Fork and Skyridge.
Defending 4A champ Orem is bumping up to 5A, making 4A the only classification without a returning champ. Three other teams from 4A bumped up as well as now it’s only a three-team classification.
Defending 2A championship South Summit is bumping up to 3A and will be paired in the same region as reigning 3A champ Summit Academy.
With the elimination of 1A football, all those 1A programs — including defending champ Milford — are being bumped into 2A to compete with the six smallest 2A schools that are remaining in the classification.
It’s now seven 1A teams competing in 2A, though, because Altamont recently dropped football because it didn’t have enough players to participate.
New kids on the block
Four schools will be playing football for the first time in 2019 — three are brand-new schools and the other an existing charter school that’s adding football.
Mountain Ridge is opening in Herriman, Cedar Valley in Eagle Mountain and Crimson Cliffs in St. George, while Providence Hall is a charter school in Herriman that will play football as an independent school.
In past years the benchmark for first-year schools has always been making the playoffs — which is no longer applicable as all schools qualify for the playoffs.
For this year’s newbies, the benchmark at minimum is to simply win a couple games. First-year school Farmington won two games a year ago, and the year before Green Canyon won three games.
Cedar Valley is the most likely to enjoy early success as it’s competing in Region 10 which is regarded as the weakest 4A region. Crimson Cliffs is competing in the extremely tough Region 9, and even though it’s pulling kids from talent-rich Desert Hills and Pine View, winning games will be tough.
Mountain Ridge may have the toughest schedule to start as it’s competing in a very difficult Region 7 that includes some of 5A’s top teams.
Each year there’s roughly a 20%-25% turnover rate with high school football head coaches in Utah, and this year’s no different with 25 schools under the direction of a new coach in 2019.
What makes this year unique, however, is where a few of those coaches moved from.
Of 25 new coaches, four simply changed schools within their own region which means they’ll be coaching against their former players later this season.
Pala Vaitu’u moved from Taylorsville to Granger, Travis Van Leeuwen moved from Logan to Ridgeline, Chris Howell moved from Ridgeline to Sky View and Eric Alder moved from Ben Lomond to Stansbury.
It’s not uncommon for assistant coaches to bounce around, but it’s pretty rare for a head coach to make a lateral move within a region.
Eleven of the 25 new coaches have previous head coaching experience in Utah.
Annual Mr. 2000 watch
The landscape of high school football offenses has changed drastically over the past decade, but there are plenty of teams that still value the yards between the tackles. Each of the past seven seasons there has been at least one returning back go over 2,000 yards, with Grantsville’s Parker Thomas eclipsing that mark last year with 2,028 yards in just 10 games.
He joined a special group of players that includes: 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).
The big question is who if anyone will join the club this year? All of the ball carriers that rushed for over 1,300 yards last year were seniors which means there’s no obvious star poised to lead the state in rushing.
Record watch for Milford’s Bryson Barnes
The phrase “four yards and a cloud of dust” is a cliché that most commonly refers to the style of football in small schools across the state.
Milford quarterback Bryson Barnes has changed that notion over the past three years, and with another strong season the UHSAA record books will be a reminder for years to come that small schools can throw the ball well too.
With 95 career passing touchdowns, Barnes needs 23 more TD passes this season to break the state record set by Lehi’s Cammon Cooper from 2014-2017.
In his career Barnes has passed for 7,439 yards and needs 3,160 more yards this season to move into the No. 3 spot in state history. With 3,581 yards he’d move into the No. 2 slot all-time.
It shouldn’t take him long — Week 1 most likely — to move up to No. 2 in another category. Three combined rushing and passing TDs in Friday’s season opener will give him 126 career TDs responsible for which would rank second in state history.
The year of the defense?
Offenses always dominate the headlines in football, and there have been some pretty prolific offenses in recent years throughout the state.
The 2019 season could be the year of the defenses, though.
According to Scout.com, 16 of the state’s top 20 recruits are defensive players, and almost all of them are defensive ends, linebackers and safeties.
The top four players are all defensive players as well: Orem linebacker Noah Sewell, Juan Diego defensive end Xavier Carlton, Corner Canyon defensive end Van Fillinger and Lone Peak safety Nate Ritchie.
Sewell is one of the top recruits in the country and will also be a beast at running back for Orem this year.
Carlton moved to Utah from California this offseason and he should dominate 3A offenses with his athleticism on the end.
Other players in the top 10 defensively are Bingham linebacker Sione Fotu, American Fork linebacker Bodie Schoonover, Skyridge defensive end Ioholani Raass and Orem safety Buju Tuisavura.
Unknown offensive stars in the wing
There’s an unpredictability in just about every classification in the state that hasn’t been there in a while, particularly when it comes to the offensive stars of 2019.
Over the past several years there has always been a handful of offensive stars returning after dominant junior seasons, but that’s just not the case this year.
Of the 39 quarterbacks, receivers and running backs who were named Deseret News MVP, first team or second team in 6A, 5A and 4A last season, only five were underclassmen. It speaks to how great last year’s class of offensive players was but also how much of an unknown this season is from an individual perspective.
Those top returning offensive players who garnered all-state status last year are: American Fork first team receiver Devin Downing, Corner Canyon first team quarterback Cole Hagen, Provo second team fullback Drason Havea, Tooele first team fullback Nukuluve Helu and Park City first team receiver Mark McCurdy.
Living up to expectations
In any sport, whether it’s high school or the pros, any season always begins with certain teams facing loftier expectations than others. Meeting those expectations is never easy as past success rarely guarantees future success.
For many of last year’s teams who went into the season with high expectations, to their credit they lived up to them.
Of the 18 teams projected to win region titles in the Deseret News preseason coaches poll last year, 11 actually delivered — including all four teams in 4A.
That’s great news for this year’s projected No. 1s, but there are seven other teams from last year that can attest that preseason respect doesn’t guarantee wins on Friday nights.
Here’s a look at the 16 projected region champs who hope the preseason recognition holds true — Fremont, Kearns, Bingham, Corner Canyon, Viewmont, Olympus, Alta, Provo, Pine View, Park City, Sky View, San Juan, Morgan, Juab, Duchesne and Beaver.
Bounce back coming?
At the other end of the expectation spectrum are the teams expected to do poorly.
Twelve teams won either one or zero games last year, and all head into the 2019 season with similarly very little fanfare. Preseason, however, is a time for optimism.Comment on this story
Six of those 12 teams have a new coach which they hope translates into success, while the other six hope the continuity the coaches and players built in 2018 carries over to this season.
It’s not unheard of for sharp turnarounds. North Sanpete went 0-10 in 2017 and a year later reached the state title game. Logan went 2-8 in 2017 and then with a new coach last year posted a 9-2 record.
Those two programs’ tremendous turnarounds are proof that expectations on the gridiron, both positive and negative, don’t guarantee anything.