Make no mistake about it, last year was a big disappointment for the Desert Hills football program.
A title contender since its inception in 2008, the Thunder took a big step back with a 5-5 record — the second-most losses in program history.
After falling to Snow Canyon on a last-second touchdown — Snow Canyon’s first victory at Thunder Stadium and one that advanced it into the 3AA semifinals at Rice-Eccles Stadium — Thunder players sat on the field in disbelief of the uncanny season.
“That game is still in the back of our minds,” senior quarterback Quinn Kiser admitted after practice. “It left a bitter taste in our mouths and summed up a tough year by our standards. That’s why we can’t wait to go out and put it all behind us.”
Losing close games wasn’t the only problem Desert Hills experienced. The team was decimated with a wrath of freak injuries.
But head coach Carl Franke isn’t about making excuses in the program’s next-man-up philosophy.
“We had some big guys go down for us, but we’re not going to make any excuses. Injuries are just part of the game, and when one guy goes down it’s up to the next guy to go out and compete,” Franke said.
Despite a lackluster season a year ago, Desert Hills comes in as one of the heavy favorites to win the state title this year.
“They should be the favorites with how talented of a team they have this year,” said one 3AA South coach. “They have a number of guys with Division I offers and looked great at the summer camps this year.”
In a tight battle, Kiser — a dual threat with both his arms and his legs — edged Kobe Sattiewhite for the starting quarterback job. Kiser will take over for Nick Warmsley, a three-year starter who is competing for the starting job at Dixie State.
“Both guys are really athletic, but we liked Quinn’s consistency,” Franke said of the quarterback battle. “Kobe will still see playing time because he is so athletic, and we are looking at a lot of different ways to get him on the field.”
A big boost for the Thunder is the return of Nephi Sewell, who coaches and players call “Mr. Everything.” Sewell will do it all on offense, defense and special teams after suffering a season-ending neck injury last year in the opening game against Jordan.
“It’s a huge blessing to have Nephi back. He’s a walking miracle,” said lineman Penei Sewell. “During our camps this summer he’s been going 110 percent. Our coaches are always telling him to not go so hard and to take some breaks, but he can’t help it. That’s just the way that he plays the game, and he loves the sport so much.”
The Thunder will be deep at running back with the return of both Marco Jordan and Brock Parry.
“Marco is a tough runner, Brock is super-fast and Nephi is a mix of both,” said Kiser. “You can say that we have a three-headed monster back there.”
Opening up the running lanes will be spearheaded by Penei Sewell, who holds offers from a number of the top college football programs in the country. Penei, just a junior, is on track to be the most highly recruited prep football player in state history. Also on the offensive line is Bundy Sewell and Houston Stapley — one of five team captains — to round out a very stout offensive line.
“We’re going to make sure that Quinn doesn’t get touched this season,” Penei Sewell said.
One of the biggest challenges this year for the Thunder will be replacing the production from their receivers last year with the trio of Cody Ricketts, Garrick Sharp and Zak Fuchs all graduating. Logan Hokanson and Braxton Porter will stretch the field on the outside with Nephi getting time in the slot.
“We lost a big chunk of the receiving corps, but I’m not too worried about it because we have some playmakers stepping in,” Kiser said of Hokanson, Porter and Nephi Sewell. “The kids we had last year were amazing, but this year I think we are just as talented. We have great route runners, sure-handed catchers, and I’m excited to see what they will do this year.”
Desert Hills will have a number of offensive players suiting up on defense.
The biggest position battle is at linebacker after leading tackler Badge Morris graduated last year.
“We are really young at the linebacker position,” Franke said. “We have talent but we just don’t have a lot of experience at that spot.”
Junior Jake Stokes and freshman Noah Sewel — who has already been offered by Hawaii — look to have their positions locked up with several others looking to solidify their positions.
Friday’s season opener will start a 7 p.m. at Jordan High School.
Coach: Carl Franke
2015 record: 5-5 overall, 4-1 3AA South
Players to watch: Quinn Kiser (QB) Nephi Sewell (RB/DB), Penei Sewell (OL/DL)
Schedule: With big games against Jordan (5A) and Salem Hills (4A) to start the season, Desert Hills will be tested before it starts region play. While no region game is a gimme, games against Dixie, and Snow Canyon should be circled on the calendar as the Thunder look for redemption after tough losses last year.
August 19: at Jordan, 7 p.m.
August 26: vs. Salem Hills, 7 p.m.
September 2: at Foothill Nev., 7 p.m.
September 9: at Grantsville, 7 p.m.
September 16: at Cedar, 7 p.m.
September 23: vs. Hurricane, 7 p.m.
September 30: at Dixie, 7 p.m.
October 7: vs. Pine View, 7 p.m.
October 21: vs. Snow Canyon, 7 p.m.
Prep football 2016
The Spectrum & Daily News’ team-by-team prep football preview schedule:
Tuesday: Diamond Ranch Academy
Today: Desert Hills
Monday, Aug. 15: Snow Canyon
Tuesday, Aug. 16: Hurricane
Wednesday, Aug. 17: Pine View
Thursday, Aug. 18: Canyon View