It has been a tough past couple seasons for the Tooele football team.
Since posting a 24-10 record over a three-season span that included a trip to the state semifinals and another trip to the quarterfinals from 2014-16, the Buffaloes are just 8-14 and they haven’t gotten out of the first round of the state playoffs. Last year, Tooele went 3-8 and was swept by county rivals Grantsville and Stansbury, adding further insult to injury.
However, new coach Andru Jones isn’t just bringing a new spread offense and a 4-3 defense to town. There’s a renewed sense of optimism for the boys in purple, along with adetermination to find their way back to the top of the Tooele County heap.
“They’re blue-collar and they work hard,” Jones said. “They’re great kids. It’s hard not to love them because they work so hard and they do everything we’ve asked. They have more of a chip on their shoulder, which I’m excited for. They want to do some special things and they have some lofty goals.”
Offensively, senior quarterback Kulani Iongi has plenty of weapons around him as he leads the Buffs’ transition from the Wing-T to the spread. In the backfield, he’ll have fellow senior Nukuluve Helu, who has verbally committed to play at Brigham Young University after a stellar junior season that saw him rush for 941 yards and 16 touchdowns on just 99 attempts. Gavin Ware will also be a threat in the open field as a receiver and runner, while Joseph Douglas moves from backup quarterback to tight end to give Iongi another big target.
“Our run game looks really good, and our pass game is coming along,” said Iongi, who threw for 1,494 yards and eight touchdowns as a junior. “Last year, I struggled a little bit toward the end of the season, but I feel like now that (Jones) is loosening up the bands on me and what I can do with the offense, I can attack the defense a little more effectively.
I feel like last year, we were a little bit down on ourselves throughout the whole season, and there was a lot of stuff that people didn’t know was going on. I feel like this year, you’ll see us a little more fired up and we’ll be ready to go when the game starts.”
Douglas said the passing game will be a key as the Buffs try to climb the ladder in a wide-open Region 10 race.
“The thing is, there are really tight friendships on this team, which equals a lot of chemistry with each other,” he said. “We’ve got size, we’ve got height — we’ve got everything we can use here. We’ve got so much talent out here, and with the strength of Kulani’s arm and the hands of all our receivers out here, we’ve got a lot of talent when it comes to the air.”
Jared Jackson is Tooele’s lone returner along the offensive line. He will be joined up front by Cole Murray, Bridger Chaplin and Adrien Lovato, among others. Key skill players include wide receivers Joseph Wilkins and Josh Prescott, along with running backs Anthony Cole and Tabor Shepard.
Jones noted that the Buffaloes had a lot of success in their 7-on-7 camps during the summer, further boosting his confidence that Tooele can achieve a number of the goals it has set for itself.
“At Weber State, we went to the Elite Eight and we went triple-overtime with Bingham,” he said. “We beat Skyridge. We beat Wasatch. People are starting to notice this team has some talent and they’re not what they used to be.
“We want to change the atmosphere in this county. They want to play for that ‘T.’ That’s what they’re playing for. We make a big thing about taking pride in that stuff. You’re going to see a little bit more ‘oomph,’ because it’s Tooele County, Tooele High School and Tooele football. They want to play for those things.”
While the Buffs may be young and learning the ropes of a new offense and a new defense, one thing that can’t be questioned is their work ethic, Jones added.
“The thing that we can’t teach is their passion and their drive, and they have it,” he said. “They want to work hard for us and they want to do things for us. They’re eager. When you talk to our boys, they’re eager to get going.”
Defensively, Ware is one of the top returning players, having ranked sixth on the team in tackles as a safety in 2018. Helu starts at linebacker, while Wilkins returns at defensive back and Finefeuiaki Maumau is back on the defensive line. Helu’s younger brother, freshman Mateaki Helu, will look to make an impact in the secondary. Prescott and Kameron Rolle will contribute at corner back, with Lovato and Ty Sutherland at linebacker and Douglas, Dominique Ascraft, Devin Murphy and Paea Tone on the defensive line.
“They’ve gotten a fire underneath them,” Jones said. “They haven’t done so well in the past couple seasons, and they need that encouragement to help lift them up more. I think they’re going to achieve a lot of their goals — individual and team goals — because of the way they work and the way they care for each other, and the way we as a staff care for them. I think the sky’s the limit.”
Ware is looking forward to seeing what the Buffs can do.
“I’ve got no doubt that we could take a little run in the playoffs, and of course take our region and our county back,” Ware said. “I just think there’s a lot more swag to it, and I definitely think there’s a chip on our shoulder.
“These coaches care about each and every one of us, and (Jones) believes that any one of us can play in that starting 11. There’s a lot more confidence going into each and every player.”
Jones said fans can expect to see the culture change that has taken place on the practice field translate to the game field on Friday nights this fall.
“I think you’re going to see us play with a lot more pride,” Jones said. “They’re prideful for that ‘T,’ they’re prideful for this community and they’re prideful to wear that purple of our school. They play hard and they’re more physical. We want to bring that old-school mentality back to this program — what Tooele was known for for so many years.”
Tooele’s season opener is Friday in North Logan against Green Canyon. The home opener is Aug. 23 against county rival Grantsville, followed by a game against Minico (Idaho) on Aug. 30 in Pocatello, Idaho. The Region 10 opener is scheduled for Sept. 6 at Ben Lomond, with a trip to Stansbury on Sept. 13 and the Buffs’ first region home game Sept. 20 against Ogden.