With the possible exception of Ridgeline, every high school football team in Region 11 has some questions marks heading into the 2021 campaign.
Arguably the most mysterious squad from Cache Valley this fall is Mountain Crest. After all, the Mustangs have a new head coach with no ties to the Beehive State, plus they return less than half of their starting lineup from a year ago.
So what exactly should fans expect from the Randy Kerns-led Mustangs this season?
“I’m a younger guy, but I’m kind of old school in my approach, (but) I believe in a physical game,” said Kerns, who was hired at Mountain Crest after spending a combined six seasons as the head coach of three different prep teams in Ohio. “I want teams to know they played us and it was a physical game. I mean, those guys hit us, those guys really got after it, they competed hard and they played the game the right way. Those would be some of my general goals.”
Kerns is very familiar with Mountain Crest’s proud tradition in football and knows significant strides must be made in order to once again challenge for region and state championships. The Mustangs went 2-9 last fall and were winless against Region 11 opponents. The encouraging thing is Mountain Crest was very competitive in several of its loses, including against two-time reigning 4A champion Sky View, which only took a 14-0 lead into the fourth quarter.
“This may sound cliché, but I really pride myself on my teams getting better every game,” Kerns said. “... Before we can start winning some games, we have to get scores competitive. We have to be in the games first. We have to run the football, we have to stop the run, so if we can do those things first I think we’ll be on the right track for our future.”
Unlike three teams from their region, the Mustangs won’t have to worry about breaking in a new quarterback for their season opener. Starting signal caller Preston Lofthouse shared that position with then-senior Zeb Bensen a year ago, and Kerns has been encouraged by his improvements throwing the football. The senior is already a proven weapon in the running game.
Kerns is confident the Mustangs have a capable backup QB in sophomore Casey Crofts.
Mountain Crest will utilize a running back by committee approach, which is to be expected in Kerns’ variation of the wing-T offense.
Terrell Lee, a returning starter at wide receiver, and Carson Olsen will likely start at running back in Friday’s season opener at Stansbury, with Clay Torrie and Dante McMurtrey also figuring into the mix. The Mustangs will count on Dan Bindrup at the H-back position.
“We’ve got quite a bit of depth and quite a bit of different skill sets among those backs, so I think they all can kind of give us something different,” Kerns said.
Lee, who garnered the praise of Kerns for his “versatility on both offense and defense,” will also line up as a slot receiver at times for the Mustangs.
“(Our offense is) definitely going to start for us with Terrell and Preston,” Kerns said. “Those guys are two of our captains. They’ve had really good summers. They’re also really good athletes, great kids. They play really hard.”
In addition to Lee, Kerns is expecting big things in the receiving game from Kolten Kirby. Garrett Austin and Joel Mortenson will contribute at the wide receiver position as well.
“He runs really great routes and he catches everything,” Kerns said of Kirby. “He’s kind of a tactician out there, but also a really quality athlete.”
Mountain Crest’s primary tight ends are Cooper Gardner and Dax Benson, and Kerns is pleased with the depth he has in that position.
The Mustangs have a trio of returning starters in the offensive trenches in Jorgen Miller, Nick Tolbert and Andrew Belles. Miller will likely be joined at the tackle spot by JC Jones, with Tolbert and Degan Anderson manning the guard positions, and Hunter Hammer starting at center. Kerns said Mountain Crest will likely use a seven-man rotation at offensive line, with Belles and Jud Wells being the sixth and seventh guys.
Kerns raved about the 6-foot-4, 260-pound Miller.
“Jorgen Miller has as much talent as any lineman I’ve coached in 12 years,” he said. “... For us to get where we want to go, he’s really got to take it to the next level and he’s got the ability to do that. It’s just a matter of fine tuning what he’s supposed to do ... getting better technically and then putting it all together.”
Miller and company are surely motivated to be more explosive on offense this season. The Mustangs only averaged 14.3 points an outing a year ago and scored 10 or fewer points in seven games.
Mountain Crest will employ a 4-3 base defense under defensive coordinator Matt Webb, but will also try to keep opponents off guard with multiple defensive looks.
Martin Vazquez returns as a starter at defensive tackle and he will be joined at that position by Maleke Bowens. Zach Freston and Austin Maughan, who Kerns said is “stupid fast,” will start at defensive end.
Additionally, Belles, Jones and Gardner will provide valuable depth in the defensive trenches for the Mustangs, who should receive valuable contributions from Alex Ndikumana once he is closer to 100 percent healthy, Kerns said.
Belles and Jones will likely be the only Mustangs who will play on both sides of the line scrimmage, which will help the team stay fresh in the trenches.
Kerns is looking forward to watching his linebackers in action this season and asserted, “man, I’m telling you we’ve got nine guys we really think we can play.” Olsen and Carson Thalman will rotate at middle linebacker, with Bindrup and Porter Budge patrolling the outside backer positions. Sophomores Cole Jones and Benson should also make an impact.
The Mustangs welcome back three of their four starters in the secondary in safeties Lee and Lofthouse, plus Kirby at cornerback. Luke Burbank is the other starting corner, with Jaky Bitton, Isaac Valentine and Austin providing depth in the secondary.
“Our kids are aggressive, they get downhill in a hurry,” Kerns said. “I’ve been really pleased with that ... I think our depth on defense is pretty solid.”
Kerns feels good about kickers Thatcher Phelps and Wells, and said Nick Nielson will likely be the starting punter, although the spot is “still up in the air.” Zander Ryan, Bitton and Lee are Mountain Crest’s return specialists.
Mountain Crest’s daunting non-region schedule is comprised of five 5A programs in Stansbury, Wasatch, Box Elder, Bonneville and Maple Mountain.