The Tooele football team had around 30 seniors graduate after last season, leaving a number of holes in the lineup from a team that finished third in Region 11 and advanced to the Class 4A state playoffs.
But, with a host of talented underclassmen, as well as a few returning starters providing valuable veteran leadership, the Buffaloes are hoping to not only pick up where they left off, but go even further in 2018 — even as they fly somewhat under the radar after an up-and-down year a season ago.
“I think we have a lot of potential,” Tooele senior lineman Nick Hogan said. “Nobody’s really looking at us like that, and that’s what we like to hear. We’re going to shock some people. Last year, people kind of pushed us to the side, and people are second-guessing us. We don’t really care what people say — we’re just going to play our game.”
The Buffs were 5-6 in coach Jeff Lewis’ first season in charge in 2017 and lost to Pine View 63-14 in the first round of the state playoffs. After an uneven year on the field and a tumultuous year off of it for his team, Lewis is cautiously optimistic about the season ahead — though he won’t know for sure until Tooele takes the field for the first time against Uintah on Friday night at Buffalo Stadium.
“You’re always good until your first game, and then you find out what you right and what you do wrong,” Lewis said. “That’s where we’re at right now — when you play yourselves, you look pretty good.”
Lewis’ team has four returning starters on the offensive side of the ball, including Hogan and Tanner Stringham on the offensive line. They’ll be the key pieces of an inexperienced group in the trenches that will be relied upon heavily, paving the way for new starting quarterback Kulani Iongi in the Buffs’ Wing-T offense.
“Offensively, we’ve got some shoes to fill,” Lewis said. “We’ve got two returning starters — two veterans — on that offensive line. That’s the big question mark right now: how well we’re going to hold up there this year.”
The Buffs shifted last year’s starting quarterback, Austin Meono, into a new role as a receiver/running back. He’ll be a major big-play threat for the Buffs, along with returning starting wide receiver Conway Hogan and fullbacks Nukuluve Helu and Jordan Leakehe.
“We made a position change with Austin Meono, but we made it with the point that he’s a playmaker and we might be better off putting the ball in his hands as a receiver or running back and letting him do what he can do,” Lewis said.
For his part, Meono is excited about the opportunity to make more plays in the open field.
“I ran a lot as a quarterback, and now that the blocking is for me, I feel like it’s going to be easier for me to run the ball,” Meono said. “I loved leading the team (as a QB), but as you get older, you start to realize that you lead anywhere you are. Me playing all these different positions, I’m on the field more and I like that. (Iongi’s) going to do a great job and I have all the faith in him.”
Defensively, Tooele struggled last year, ranking 20th in Class 4A with 33.2 points allowed per contest. To try to change that, the Buffs are changing to a 3-4 defensive alignment, with Leakehe and Thad Torgensen anchoring the defensive line and Helu moving from safety to linebacker. The new-look defense is still a work in progress, but a lot will start to sort itself out as the preseason goes along.
“There’s a lot of unanswered questions going into Friday night,” Lewis said. “There’s still some positions that can be won by younger kids, and there’s positions that could be held by kids that are stepping up and filling those shoes.”