The Idaho Statesman is previewing high school football teams and conferences in the Treasure Valley area for 18 days leading up to the season, which starts Friday. Follow IdahoStatesman.com for a list of all the previews.
Rocky Mountain High football coach Scott Criner didn’t want to see the jubilation over the first state championship in program history extend into the New Year.
He was over the celebration, and he was most definitely over the bling.
“Our biggest thing here is we always talk about what you do next. No one cares about what you did yesterday,” Criner said. “The only guys who really care about last year’s state championship are the guys who were there on that team.
“I told our kids as soon as we hit Christmas and started into the winter break, ‘Hey great, you’ve got rings. Put them away.’ ”
Although the Grizzlies return seven starters on offense and two on defense, Criner isn’t using phrases like “repeat” or “back to back” with his 2016 squad.
“You don’t hear us talking repeat. This team hasn’t done anything,” Criner said. “You’re not repeating. The guys that were there a year ago, they did it, not you. That’s their accomplishment, and now it’s the next step for us. What are we going to do?”
Rocky Mountain will build its fly sweep behind the strength of five returning offensive linemen, all of whom started for at least a portion of the 2015 season. Criner anticipates center Zach Redd, left tackle Connor Wood, left guard Keeghan Freeborn, right guard Connor Jacobs and right tackle Jake Wilkerson will all go on to play college football at various levels.
For now, the group will make the transition easier for first-year starting quarterback Thomas Perkins. Junior Carter Kuehl, who ran the second-fastest 100-meter time in the state last season at 10.83 seconds, replaces All-Idaho first-team running back Jake Roper.
Reigning 100-meter state champion Austin Lane will start at receiver, forcing defenses to honor Rocky Mountain as a passing threat, too, a year after winning a state championship with the second fewest passing yards among 5A SIC teams.
“(Thomas) has really good speed, and he can throw the football,” Criner said. “So our passing game has returned to us.”
While starting experience on defense is limited, 12 lettermen are back who saw playing time last season.
Senior linebackers Kyle Frazier and Peyton Pettigrew are the lone returning starters, but Criner says the overall team speed on defense is better than last season’s group, which limited opponents to 14.7 points per game during the regular season.
“We have guys that can run,” Criner said. “They just need to mature.”
Special teams may prove to be the Grizzlies’ most talented group.
Jonah Dalmas is the reigning All-Idaho first team kicker and punter, booting a school-record, 51-yard field goal last season and averaging 42.3 yards per punt. But Bingham High (Utah) transplant Tanner Bengtzen is pushing Dalmas in practice for punting duties, and junior Kyle VanTonder — a member of the U-17 USA Rugby team — has perfected his rugby kick.
“He’s amazing,” Criner said of VanTonder. “He can do stuff with the football that I haven’t seen a guy do.”
Lane and Kuehl — arguably the two fastest players on the field this season — will be the Grizzlies’ returners.
For the third year in a row, Rocky Mountain opens the season on the road. The Grizzlies will compete in the Rocky Mountain Rumble at Holt Arena in Pocatello, taking on Pleasant Grove (Utah) at 5:30 p.m. Friday. The Vikings advanced to Utah’s 5A state quarterfinals last season.
“I know that for us, the experience that we got last year, those kids, when you go through that, it does add to your program,” Criner said. “The further they go, the more expectations. ... They understand what the work ethic is, and this team has a tremendous work ethic — the best one I’ve had yet as far as working and coming together.
“We run, and we run a lot. We lift, and we get after it. I’m not going to say we do it anymore than anybody else, but I know that when our kids go and take that approach, it makes us a better football team.”
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Zach Redd, OL/DL
A reigning All-Idaho first team pick at center, the 6-foot-1, 270-pound senior has offers from Idaho, Montana State, Portland State and Army, coach Scott Criner said.
Kyle Frazier, ILB
The 6-0, 220-pound senior led the Grizzlies with 68 tackles, seven tackles for loss and five sacks, landing on the All-Idaho first team. He has an offer from Montana State.
Connor Wood, OL
Started the last four games of 2015 after recovering from an injury, and the 6-5, 300-pound left tackle has offers from Weber State and Montana State.
Peyton Pettigrew, OLB
The 6-1, 190-pound senior and three-year starter joins Frazier as one of just two starters back on defense.
Pleasant Grove, Utah (Holt Arena)
at Capital (DLP)
at Timberline (DLP)*
* pod game
Last year: 11-1, 5-0 5A SIC Pod A
Playoffs: Beat Mountain View 41-22 in championship
Coach: Scott Criner, fourth season
Record at school: 29-6
Stadium: Brighton Stadium, Meridian