The Tooele football team posted a 4-7 record in coach Andru Jones’ first season in charge in 2019, recording its third losing season in a row.
However, the Buffaloes are in a position to change their fortunes in 2020, thanks to an experienced-yet-young roster that features 17 returning starters from a year ago — most of whom are still underclassmen. That bodes well for a squad looking to battle with the likes of Park City and Stansbury atop Region 10 this season.
“Out of the 17 (returning starters), 11 of them are sophomores or juniors, so we’re still a little young,” Jones said. “They’ve had the experience on Friday night, and they understand what it’s like. Our expectation is that we’ve got to compete with Park City and Stansbury, so that’s where we’re at. We feel like we can go for that region title.”
Tooele will have 10 of its 11 defensive starters back from last season, including leading tackler Ty Sutherland and fellow linebackers Adrien Lovato and Malakai Sedillo. Devin Murphy, Paea Tone, Fine Maumau and Ernest Gurr return along the defensive line, and Kameron Rolle, Drake Gritzmacher and Mateaki Helu are back in the secondary. Tooele finished eighth in Class 4A in scoring defense last year at 24.3 points per game, and with seven seniors among the Buffs’ returning starters, they figure to improve on that number.
Offensively, the Buffs have some holes to fill despite having seven returning starters on that side of the ball. With Nukuluve Helu now plying his trade at Brigham Young University after a dominant career as the Buffs’ running back to past couple years, Tooele will employ a three-headed monster in the backfield this season. Mateaki Helu, just a sophomore, is already garnering attention from Division I college programs, and will be joined by Tabor Shepard and Anthony Cole, both of whom saw extensive playing time last season. They’ll be running behind an offensive line that returns four of five starters, anchored by junior center Chandler Yeck. Gordon Tuiletufuga, Drake Douglas and Bubba Vowles are also back on the line.
Tooele also has the chance to be dangerous through the air, though the quarterback position is still up from grabs and the Week One starter won’t be announced until Monday. Gavin Brown and Justic Tadifa are currently battling for the opportunity to start the Buffs’ Aug. 14 opener against Green Canyon, though both will likely see time under center against the Wolves and are also stars at other positions.
“We haven’t seen a lot of live reps in a game for both quarterbacks,” Jones said. “Both quarterbacks are going to be juniors, and one is being recruited as a receiver. The other one can play running back or receiver, so they’re both really athletic.”
Whether it’s Tadifa or Brown at quarterback, the Buffs have an arsenal of wide receivers that could make life difficult for opposing defenses. Gabe Medina and Dylan Makoni have drawn attention from other coaches in the state with their work with Utah’s traveling All-Star team over the summer, and Makoni was Tooele’s second-leading receiver with 289 yards and three touchdowns in just seven games last year.
“They’ve been working with some high-profile guys,” Jones said. “Ross Apo, who played in the NFL, has been working with them, and Ross has flat-out said they might be the best receivers in the 2022 class. We have two really, really good receivers that we feel like can make a different impact.”
Tooele will be tested early in the 2020 season, with four of its first five games against teams either renamed in the top-five or receiving votes in the preseason polls for their respective classifications. Green Canyon was just outside the top five in Class 4A, while Week 2 opponent Grantsville is No. 4 in Class 3A. The Buffs will then face Alta on the road in Week 3, with the Hawks finishing just outside the top five in the Class 5A preseason poll. After opening the Region 10 season against Ben Lomond in Week 4, Tooele will play host to county rival Stansbury in Week 5, with the Stallions among those receiving votes in the Class 4A poll.
The rest of the Region 10 season is no picnic, either. Ogden and Cedar Valley are programs on the rise, while Park City reached the Class 4A championship game last season and Mountain View knocked the Buffaloes out of last season’s playoffs. Only Uintah and Ben Lomond are likely to struggle this season, according to preseason prognosticators.
“Our kids understand that the first three weeks are going to be tough, and we have to be on our ‘A’ game,” Jones said. “We can’t have a lot of mistakes. Green Canyon returns their whole offense, and they were ranked in the top five in offense in 4A last year. It’s going to be a tough task for our D, but they’re willing to take the challenge.”
Even with the difficult schedule, Jones and the Buffs are happy just to be playing after the uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus pandemic. The completion of the 2020 season without any pauses is far from guaranteed and Tooele is approaching it accordingly.
“That’s kind of been our philosophy this year,” Jones said. “Play every down like it’s your last, because we don’t know when it’s going to be your last down. With the coronavirus, three weeks into the season, it could be done. We’ve talked to our kids about playing every day like it’s your last day, even practices. We’ve gotten great effort from that.”