Rocky Mountain High receiver makes one-handed catch
Rocky Mountain and Eagle remain two of the premier football programs in Idaho, and both are fresh off runs to the state semifinals last fall.
But after a tumultuous offseason at Rocky Mountain and heavy graduation losses at Eagle, the two powerhouses no longer remain guaranteed of their supremacy in 5A SIC Pod B.
Both remained atop the preseason coaches’ poll in their division. But the door is cracking open for programs such as Borah, Kuna, Centennial and Timberline to upset the established pecking order.
Below are the team-by-team previews for every member of the division, sorted by their finish in the poll.
ROCKY MOUNTAIN GRIZZLIES
Last season: 9-3, 4-1 5A SIC Pod B
Playoffs: Lost to Capital 27-13 in semifinals
Coach: Chris Culig, first season
Career record: 0-0
The heavy conference — not just pod — favorite took a significant blow when head coach Scott Criner left the program two weeks before practice started to become the athletic director at Eagle. But Culig, the former defensive coordinator, takes over, and the powerhouse program Criner built remains intact.
The Grizzlies return six starters on both sides of the ball, including a pair of FBS commits and reigning first-team All-Idaho selections in offensive lineman Keeghan Freeborn (Boise State) and running back Carter Kuehl (Air Force).
An explosive offense should get even more potent as Rocky Mountain prepares two offensive sets. The traditional option attack that averaged 342 rushing yards a game in 2016 remains in place with a pair of dangerous quarterbacks, Tre Page and Kyle Van Tonder. And former Boise quarterback Will McMullin adds a threat through the air that Rocky Mountain lacked in previous years.
Last season: 10-1, 5-0 5A SIC Pod B
Playoffs: Lost to Mountain View 25-15 in semifinals
Coach: Paul Peterson, 13th season
Career record: 119-47
Peterson lived the coach’s dream last season when Eagle returned eight offensive starters, including its entire offensive line. But this fall is different: only one returning starter on offense and one on defense.
Instead of lining up and dominating opponents with simple Xs and Os, Peterson said the Mustangs will have to get creative to make up for their lack of experience. That will lead to gambles and a few mistakes, but that’s a price Peterson is willing to accept.
“We have to try to play simple and play fast, and avoid paralysis through analysis,” Peterson said.
Devan Bridgewater, a first-team all-conference quarterback, will shoulder the load offensively as he returns for his third season as a starter. Previously asked to remain in the pocket, Bridgewater will become a dual threat this season, Peterson said.
Bridgewater and Eagle get a boost in the backfield with the return of Preston Vandegriff. The senior missed the past two seasons due to injury, but he is finally healthy and ready for a key role.
Last season: 5-5, 3-2 5A SIC Pod B
Playoffs: Lost to Coeur d’Alene 54-13 in first round
Coach: Jason Burton, second season
Career record: 5-5
The Lions enter their second season under Burton with an enviable amount of talent and six starters returning on both sides of the ball.
A pair of juniors — quarterback Jake Standlee and wide receiver Ellis Magnuson — both saw key minutes and made big plays for the Lions last fall. Standlee stepped in after an injury to the No. 1 quarterback and started seven games, throwing for 606 yards, three TDs and four interceptions. Burton said he’s grown immensely.
Magnuson led Borah in receiving last fall, but his biggest impact comes on defense, where he nabbed four interceptions. Look for an increased role for Magnuson on both sides of the ball.
“(He’s) the best playmaker on our team,” Burton said.
The largest question mark remains in the backfield, where Borah needs to replace the 5A SIC’s second-leading rusher: second-team All-Idaho RB Kegan Lester (1,347 yards).
Last season: 4-6, 2-3 5A SIC Pod B
Playoffs: Lost to Rocky Mountain 25-0 in first round
Coach: Sherm Blaser, first season
Career record: 16-19
The Kavemen moved up to the 5A classification for the first time in school history last fall and reached the playoffs. But Kuna underwent a rebuilding process in the offseason as head coach Ian Smart left for Timberline and Blaser stepped in after leading Melba to the 2A playoffs the past three seasons.
Blaser said he’ll keep the same defense (4-2-5), defensive terminology and philosophies (play fast and aggressive). But he’s installing a new spread offense after Kuna scored 12.8 points per game last fall, 11th in the 12-team conference.
Starting quarterback Danny Rogers returns, as does his top receiver, Jerome Miller, a second-team all-conference selection. Rogers also has a pair of returning linemen in front of him in Sam Cafferty and Tucker Heindel. But Blaser said installing a new scheme will take time.
“My philosophy is keep it simple, keep it cohesive and let the kids play fast,” Blaser said.
Last season: 3-6, 0-5 5A SIC Pod B
Playoffs: Did not qualify
Coach: David Koch, fourth season
Career record: 4-23
The Patriots went young last season, relying on a bounty of juniors and sophomores. The move paid off as Centennial won three games, its most under Koch, and now it returns nine starters on offense and seven on defense.
The offensive line leads the way with four of five starters back: Braden Prescott, Lucas Little, John Little and Chad Bowcutt. They’ll protect junior quarterback Dayne Koch, another returning starter. But David Koch said the Patriots will need to rely on their offensive line to boost a running game that averaged 79.8 yards per game, last in the conference.
“This is the third year of our system, and the players are getting comfortable with the schemes and concepts,” David Koch said.
The defense remains formidable up the gut with middle linebacker Victor Ngalamulume and Bowcutt at defensive tackle. Both are entering their third year as starters.
Last season: 2-7, 1-4 5A SIC Pod B
Playoffs: Did not qualify
Coach: Ian Smart, first season
Career record: 17-14
Smart guided Kuna to a playoff appearance last fall during its first season at the 5A level, and now he takes over a rebuilding project at Timberline.
Smart said the Wolves will field only 14 seniors, leaving Timberline to rely on a young but talented group of sophomores and juniors.
“Attrition has really gotten to the older class,” Smart said. “Right now, I’m looking at starting a kid as a freshman, which I’ve never had as a coach.”
Timberline will build its offense around running back Jacob Pinkeny, a second-team all-conference pick as a fullback last year. But Smart said he’s turning the 6-2, 230-pound senior into an every-down weapon, as well as a pass-rushing force at defensive end.
The quarterback battle remained open early in camp as junior Layton Wagner, the starter at the end of last season, tried to hold off sophomore Andy Peters, who brings a big arm and athleticism but has played only freshman football.