I don’t think teams are going to be able to load the box this year cause we’ve got too much talent on the offensive side of the ball. —Junior quarterback Nick Warmsley

Note: Desert Hills finished with an 11-2 overall record in 2013 and third in 3AA South with 4-2 record in Region 9. It beat Pine View 27-21 in 3AA state championship.

ST. GEORGE — It wasn’t necessarily flashy, but Desert Hill’s vanilla offensive approach last season was certainly effective as it rode the coattails of a dominant defense to a state championship.

“We knew we’d have a really good defense, so we knew we didn’t have to throw the ball 50 times a game. We could play possession-type football and play good defense and still be in football games,” said coach Carl Franke. “I know it wasn’t sexy last year, but it was something we knew was a winning formula for us. We didn’t really mind to possess the clock.”

A year later, the rest of 3AA better watch out because there’s nothing vanilla about the offense this season.

Junior quarterback Nick Warmsley is exponentially better a year later, his receivers are faster and more athletic and all of that means running back Bridger Cowdin could have a monster season.

“I don’t think teams are going to be able to load the box this year cause we’ve got too much talent on the offensive side of the ball,” said Franke

As for that defense that only allowed 11.1 ppg last season, it’s as frightening as ever with seven returning starters.

Highlighting that bunch is Gabe Sewell, a beast of a linebacker who was arguably the best defensive player in 3AA last season. With second-leading tackler Tucker Cowdin also back at linebacker, and Boogie Sewell and Justice Alo returning to anchor the defensive front, moving the ball on the Thunder will be as difficult as ever.

Perhaps the most impressive stat from last season is what Desert Hills did defensively to Pine View quarterback Kody Wilstead. The BYU commit threw for 4,390 yards and 36 touchdowns, but the Thunder intercepted him six times in two games.

Since winning the championship, Franke has been most impressed with how his players have responded to the glory.

“They enjoyed the state championship last year a ton, but when it came down to the new class becoming seniors, they were hungry for a repeat. That’s what I loved about it. They set a new goal,” said Franke.

The players are hungry to do what Hurricane couldn’t do in 2012, and what Dixie couldn’t do in 2013 — repeat as state champ.

With Pine View hungry to avenge last year’s title-game loss, the emergence of Warmsley could be the key for Desert Hills.

As a sophomore last season, the coaching staff kept things simple as he completed 103-of-207 passes for 1,485 yards, 11 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He also rushed for 613 yards and four TDs.

He famously recorded negative three passing yards in a semifinal victory over Dixie on 2-of-4 completions — and his team won. Warmsley was the ultimate gamer as QB.

A year later, the coaching staff is taking off the reins. At Weber State’s 7-on-7 tournament in June, Franke said Weber State coach Jay Hill talked with him two or three times about how good his quarterback was. A few weeks later at UNLV’s 7-on-7 tournament, Warmsley led the Thunder to the title.

Warmsley’s quickly proving that he’s no longer an afterthought thrower. He’s a running back at heart though, and that dual-threat is why he’s poised for a breakout season.

Last season, Warmsley only threw for over 100 yards in six of 12 games. His best game was against Payson when he threw for 344 yards and three touchdowns. At the rate he’s going, that could be the norm for the once negative passer.

Bridger Cowdin will be equally as important offensively a year after rushing for 1,107 yards and 13 TDs facing mostly eight men in the box.

“He’s going to be very important in run game and pass game. We’re going to use him all over the field. He’s a mismatch for just about anybody. We’re going to use his speed and athleticism and get him the ball in the open field and have him do his thing cause he’s pretty special when he gets the ball in his hand,” said Franke.

If he has a big year, Desert Hills’ return trip to Rice-Eccles Stadium is an inevitability.

Desert Hills Thunder at a glance

Coach: Carl Franke is in his third year as head coach at Desert Hills, amassing a 19-6 record thus far with a state title in 2013. He’s a graduate of Minnisink Valley High in New York.

Offense

(4 returning starters; Spread offense)

There are plenty of weapons for the Thunder to be an upper-echelon offensive team in 3AA this season if a relatively inexperienced offensive line rounds into form. Junior center Justice Alo and senior right guard Boogie Sewell are the lone right turning starters. The coaching staff, however, is confident in how the others will fill in, and quarterback Nick Warmsley and running back Bridger Cowdin should both have big years. So should the Smurf Crew. Cody Ricketts (5-foot-8) and Stetson Wood (5-foot-7) are athletic slot receivers who will be matchup nightmares. So too could freshman running back Nephi Sewell. Franke called him a “freak of nature” and someone he can’t wait to get on the field.

Defense

(7 returning starters)

Any team in 3AA, and maybe the state, would be thrilled to have one linebacker like Tucker Cowdin or Gabe Sewell, but Desert Hills has both of them. Sewell might actually shift to safety this year, but Franke still said they plan on moving him all over the field. The defensive line will be anchored by returning starters Alo and Boogie Sewell, but Zach Fuchs and Braden Bailey will also be key for the Thunder. Brady Kiser and Mason Palmer are two players in the secondary who should have big years.

Coaches preseason 3AA South straw poll: First

Deseret News 3AA South prediction: Second

Bottom line: After finishing third in 3AA last season, Desert Hills impressively avenged earlier losses to Dixie and Pine View with playoff victories over the two en route to the state championship. A year later, expectations are through the roof. How will the players handle them? The Thunder thrived as underdogs last year, but taking everyone’s best shot Friday after Friday can be exhausting. A superb defense is a great foundation to start with, but it’s hard to imagine Desert Hills repeating as state champ without more offensive contribution in 2014. Coach Franke believes his team is capable of that, and a repeat state title might be just a few months away.

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Desert Hills coaching history

2012-current — Carl Franke (19-6)

2009-2011 — Jake Nelson (22-12)

2008 — Kevin Cuthbertson (3-7)

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Deseret News First Team all-staters the past 10 years

2013 — Bridger Cowdin, RB

2013 — Brock Doman, OL

2013 — Jake Wagner, DL

2013 — Gabe Sewell, LB

2013 — Sil Bundy, LB

2013 — Braden Reber, DB

2012 — Ty Rutledge, QB

2012 — Josh Anderson, TE

2011 — Mike Needham, RB

2011 — Peter Brown, LB

2011 — Bud Pope, DB

2010 — Peter Brown, LB

2010 — Bud Pope, DB

To view second team and honorable mention all-staters through the years, check out the Deseret News All-State Archives.

James Edward is Deseret News prep editor and Real Salt Lake beat writer.