If we can avoid injury and give some young, inexperienced kids some confidence after three preseason games, I think we could be right there with the rest of 'em. —Erik Thompson
Note: Northridge finished with a 4-6 overall record in 2013 and was third in Region 1 with a 4-2 record. It lost to Riverton 31-14 in the first round of the 5A playoffs.
LAYTON — The Knights' tale, it seems, never changes too much.
They don't have a lot of kids who are big in physical size and stature, but their players are always quick, athletic and know how to play hard-nosed football.
This year will likely be no different. Northridge High doesn't have too many young men who would turn the heads of major college recruiters, but they've got a bunch of fierce, fast fellas who will play an aggressive style of offense and a physical, hard-hitting brand of defense.
Heck, that's the Knights' tale every year, isn't it?
Erik Thompson's 11th year at the helm features just three returning starters on offense and five on defense. That's not a lot of experience to fall back on, but Thompson and his staff know how to coach 'em up and get their kids to play hard every week.
"If we can avoid injury and give some young, inexperienced kids some confidence after three preseason games, I think we could be right there with the rest of 'em," he said of the Region 1 race. "We've got some work to do, but if we're willing to put in the work, I think that we'll be as good as anyone in this region as well.
"We're by far the smallest 5A school in the state (with an enrollment this year of around 1,500). Our numbers are down — we used to always have around 1,800 kids here every year — and are the lowest they've ever been, but we expect that number to go back up again in the next few years.
"You can cry about it or you can go and compete," Thompson said. "Davis and Syracuse are always gonna be like Alabama and we're gonna be like Boise State. Our kids feel like they can go out and beat those guys. We've got a lot of kids going both ways, so we need more luck than them because, if they get a guy hurt, they can just plug another guy in. We don't have that luxury."
But in spite of their lack of size or experience, the Knights should still be fine. With quarterback Ben Jackson, running back Dayan Lake and flanker Dallas Moklebust spearheading the offense, Northridge should again be able to put points up on the board. The Knights averaged nearly 30 points per game against Region 1 opponents last season.
Defensively, with five starters returning, the Knights should be able to improve on last year's performance, when they allowed 27 or more points seven times in 10 games.
Jackson stepped in last season when starting quarterback Nate Kusuda suffered a broken collarbone midway through the season. Jackson started the final five games of the 2013 campaign, and the Knights won three of four league games with him at the controls before falling to Riverton in the 5A playoffs' opening round.
Thompson likes Jackson's gritty personality and leadership, and the Knights' offense will be tailored to suit the senior signal-caller's strengths.
"He really kind of saved our season last year," Thompson said of Jackson. "He's a real gritty kid. I mean, If I had to pick one characteristic above all to have in a football player, it would be grit and he's definitely a gritty kid. So we love him and we'll follow him. And he's got a great backup who's very similar to him and maybe we'll even implement his backup a little bit in junior Jrue Perkins, who will start at safety for us.
"Jrue broke his collarbone a week after Kusuda did or he would've been in the mix a little bit at QB. At that point, we only had one quarterback in the whole program and no one else who'd ever taken a snap before.
"Morale was down," Thompson said. "If Ben got hurt, the season was over. Ben hadn't played and the guy in front of him (Kusuda) was really, really good. So when Ben stepped in and really showed a lot of leadership and confidence and made plays, and we kind of got on a roll winning games with him, I think it really turned the season around for us."
Jackson wound up completing 92 of 159 passes for 1,195 yards and nine touchdowns, and he ran the ball 71 times for 341 yards and four more TDs. That experience will serve to bolster Jackson and the Knights entering his senior season.
"I think Ben comes in with a lot of confidence because he was thrown into a really tough situation and was successful," Thompson said. "And more importantly, his teammates believe in him and know he can make plays, so we expect him to take a step further this year.
"We really limited him last year. We were a pass-first offense, had a really good quarterback and were throwing it like 40 times a game, then Ben came in and he was like a run-it-20-times-a-game kinda quarterback. So we had to wholesale change the offense on the fly, and we kinda did it slowly and put in a little stuff at a time, and this year we feel confident and we'll put a lot more in and he's confident. So we expect him to be a really good quarterback for us.
"It'll be different," Thompson admitted. "He's more of a Johnny Manziel mode; there's many times in a game I'm like 'No, no, no,' then 'Yes, yes, yes.' I think he improvises a lot, he makes plays with his feet, sometimes to his detriment, but I love that about him. He's very confident in himself and courageous to make a throw. Sometimes he has that Brett Favre mentality. He makes mistakes in a game sometimes, but he usually makes three or four big plays to make up for it. He's got the best quarterback coach in America (Braden Mitchell) helping him. If he can limit those mistakes he makes in a game and still have those positive plays that he makes that a lot of QBs can't, it could be a special season for us."
Thompson said that, since Jackson is so adept at running the football, the Knights' normal pass-happy offense will shift its focus to more of a ground-oriented attack.
"We've changed the offense around," Thompson said. "We'll run our quarterback 20 times a game and you'd better account for him. And when defenses try to take that away, hopefully that makes throwing the ball easier. We have some good receivers and we're confident in them.
"It's just that throwing the ball takes the offensive line doing their job, the quarterback doing his job, and the receivers doing their job. So it's a lot more moving parts.
"So I expect early in the season we'll be a little more run-heavy," Thompson said, "but I anticipate us getting better at the passing game. And we definitely have some playmakers out there that we can get the ball to in Jaylen Dyson, Moklebust, Dante Joseph and our tight end, Raven Kennedy. They're all really athletic kids who can make plays in space if we can get 'em the ball."
Another big-time playmaker for the Knights is senior running back Lake, a quick, powerful performer who can make plays on both sides of the ball. He has already committed to play collegiately at BYU after running for 695 yards and five touchdowns on 125 carries last season. He also caught 60 passes for 722 yards and four more TDs.
"He's the fastest and strongest he's ever been," Thompson said of Lake, "and hopefully we can block well enough for him and throw well enough to keep people out of the box for him, and he could have a special year there for us.
"I really feel that's my job. I've got to put him in positions to be successful. Really we have some definite weaknesses on our team and we're gonna try to hide those like everybody else. The thing that Dayan's gonna find out is, when everyone knows you're so good and their whole game plan is designed to take you away, that's gonna help the rest of our team make plays and be better.
"So there might be games where someone says Dayan didn't do much today, and the reason we were successful throwing the ball to other guys is because of Dayan," he said. "I anticipate defenses doing everything they can to take him away. So we'll try to counter that with some other things."
Along with Lake, the Knights have "some guys who are more your prototypical linebackers who are playing fullback and will hit ya in the mouth and block ya and run hard," Thompson said of junior Ammon Uasilaa and seniors Kade Palmer and Quinn McClune.
At flanker, Moklebust is the starter after catching nine passes for 210 yards and a touchdown last year.
"There's a really good junior behind him named Mike McGee that we'll rotate in there when we do our four-wide package," Thompson said.
At wide receiver will be Dyson, a 6-foot-3, 195-pound performer who is tall, strong and fast. "He's a humble kid that really works hard," Thompson said, noting that Dyson gets some good guidance from his mom and also his uncle, former NFL defensive back Andre Dyson, who is the first-year head coach at Clearfield High this year.
"Dyson plays both ways," Thompson said, "so they'll probably get some time in there, but we'll try to keep Dyson in there as much as we can."
At tight end, senior Raven Kennedy, who is 6 foot and 190 pounds, gets the starting call. Though he might be deemed somewhat smallish for the position, Thompson says, in the Knights' offense, "he gets flexed out quite a bit and is just like a big wide receiver, kinda like (New Orleans Saints' star) Jimmy Graham. That's how we use our tight end.
"He's physical and a good blocker," Thompson said of Kennedy, who will be joined at tight end by senior Colton Auger.
At slot receiver, the Knights benefit from newcomer Jamison Clark, a senior who moved to Layton from Pine View after his dad, Steve Clark, got the offensive coordinator's job at Weber State this year.
Jamison Clark will rotate at the slot with senior Dante Joseph, who Thompson says is "really super-athletic but he hasn't played much football. He's just kinda learning our offense, but I think he'll make some plays in there for us."
Thompson says offensive line might be the most surprising group on the Northridge squad this season.
"We were really worried about that group," he said. "We only had one returning starter (guard Taylor Allen) and he was a sophomore last year. There's a chance we'll be starting four juniors or maybe even five juniors there. So when you've got all these O-linemen that are young and they're really small, and they don't have any experience, that's usually a recipe for some trouble.
"But we've really been pleased with them. They've worked their butts off in the weight room. They all can run, they like each other, they play really, really hard. They're super smart and, in camp, they were very good. But that was in a camp situation, so who knows? But they really held their own and have improved a lot. It might take awhile; it might take 'til region before they gel because they're young and inexperienced, but we think they could go from what might have been a weakness of our team to being one of the strengths of our team.
"In my opinion, that's the most important position in football," Thompson said of the O-line. "And fortunately, I've got a really good offensive line coach in Mike Martini. He gets those guys all on the same page and they like each other and they talk and play hard, and I think that makes up for a lot when we're averaging 5-11, 190 across the board there.
"But they're tough, man. They were going up against guys twice their size, and it's like that gnat that won't go away. I mean they're keeping their feet alive and pushing and scraping and they made a lot of things happen in camp, so hopefully they can continue that."
At center, junior Brogan Poll is slated to start, and he'll be flanked by Allen, who Thompson says "is one of those guys that's 5-11, 190 — he started at 170 last year — and he's just a tough, tough kid that plays hard all the time."
At the other guard spot, there's a battle going on between senior Kyle Eichmeier, who's small but fast, tough and super smart; junior Tommy White (6-0, 250); and senior Albert Toa (6-0, 255), who wasn't with the team in camp because he was playing rugby.
"He's a strong, tough kid," Thompson said of Toa.
At offensive tackle, the Knights have some size in 6-3, 270-pound junior Noah Kramer, who will be going both ways, while the other tackle is junior Garrison Hinckley (6-3, 215), a lean, athletic and tough kid, according to Thompson.
"Hopefully, we'll find a little more depth there," Thompson said. "Injuries usually really kill us. We're trying to find as many backups as we can. Until we get in those 'Friday Night Lights,' you never know. Sometimes the lights come on and kids rise to the occasion; at other times, some kids look like Tarzan in practice and then play like Jane in games.
"We'll be really tested in the preseason," Thompson said of the Knights' first three games against East, Olympus and Highland. "We'll definitely be challenged as far as our toughness goes in those three games."
Over on the defensive line, Kramer will anchor the Knights' new-look 3-4 formation. He had 48 tackles, two sacks and an interception last season.
"I expect him to be a real dominant," Thompson said of Kramer. "He's quick and athletic for how big he is."
Uasilaa, who at 5-10 and 190 pounds is undersized to play D-line, has proved to be "a real tough kid in there" at nose guard or defensive tackle, Thompson said.
"I'm really pleased with the depth we have," Thompson said. "I thought it would be a weakness, but the kids have worked extremely hard in the weight room and there are some newcomers who have some size on them."
At middle linebacker, senior Tyler Brown (6-1, 235) is "a real big, mean, physical kid" who's a good run-stopper, Thompson said.
He'll be joined by senior Brett Turek, who had 16 tackles and a sack last season. At 5-11 and 185 pounds, he is "kind of undersized but super smart and really dissects plays well, and he's a good leader. I think those guys could be a good tandem in there."
At outside linebacker are "our two best football players," according to Thompson, in Lake and Palmer. Lake piled up 56 tackles, two sacks and an interception playing in the secondary last season, while Palmer had 32 tackles and a sack.
Palmer, a senior returning starter, "was a phenomenal player for us last year. He's the strongest kid on the team, really physical, can run, and is just a tough kid," Thompson said.
"Dayan is a super-physical kid who could play offensive guard if you asked him to. That's rare to have a corner that's that physical, and this year we've moved him to linebacker. He's very aggressive and I think he's the most diverse football player in the state. At linebacker, we're trying to put him in position where he can tackle, he can blitz, and he can cover people."
Behind Lake and Palmer is Kennedy, who will probably back up every linebacker spot.
"We have a lot of guys playing both ways, and he'll rotate in there a lot," Thompson said. "We moved him from D-end and he's learning to play with his hand off the ground."
McClune, a tough, strong senior, will back up in the middle, while junior Billy Browning, another strong kid who can run, also played D-end last year and is "learning to cover guys and play in space (at linebacker)," Thompson said. "They have the talent to do it, they've just got to learn how."
The defensive backfield is another area Thompson feels can be a strength for the Knights.
Dyson has been moved to corner to take the place of Lake, and Joseph provides great speed at the other cornerback spot.
Backing them up is Rocky Lunceford, "a typical high school corner who's shorter and not as athletic, but is super smart, really tough and plays hard all the time."
At safety, Moklebust returns after starting last season, when he had 76 tackles — second-most on the team — and three interceptions.
"He's a 4.0 student, a great leader, and it's great to have him back," Thompson said.
Perkins also plays safety, where he played last year as a sophomore and has shown a ton of ability.
Seniors Colton Auger and Gavin Campbell will handle the kicking chores.
The Knights couldn't help but feel a bit snakebitten last year after Kusuda and two other key players went down with serious injuries, but Thompson says that's an unfortunate part of football — one they hope they can avoid this season.
"We're hoping we got all that out of our system last year because, along with Kusuda, we lost two of our best players early in the season to season-ending injuries," Thompson said. "Obviously it hurt us last year, but maybe it's a blessing this year. Guys got to step in and play, and maybe we'll be a little more prepared this year.
"No one feels sorry for you and the band plays on when people get injured. Sometimes that's a fun thing about coaching football. Morale is high because kids know they're gonna have a chance to play and get in the game."
Thompson sizes up the Region 1 race as a well-balanced dogfight.
"It could be a fun year," he said. "Davis and Syracuse will always be two of the top teams in this region because of their numbers — 500 to 700 more kids than anybody else — and they've got really good coaches and really good talent, too, so they'll always be good.
"Weber and Viewmont are two programs that are on the rise. I've heard a lot of good things about the new Viewmont coach (Scott Ditty), and (Weber coach Matt) Hammer's one of the better coaches I've ever been around. He's real enthusiastic and the kids love him.
"Fremont's got a lot of good, young kids, and Layton's probably as talented as they've ever been. They've got a lot of big kids. Layton will challenge; every game they play they could win," Thompson said.
"One thing about this region, there's no weeks off. Everybody can beat everybody else. So I think it's one of those years where you could take first or you could take last, depending on two or three plays. The bounce of a ball, injuries, all that kind of stuff will play a part.
"So I think everyone's excited, thinking 'Hey, this could be our year.' And I think there are seven teams thinking that this year."
Northridge Knights at a glance
Coach: Erik Thompson begins his 11th season as head coach at the school and has posted an overall record of 68-41. The former Roy High athlete, who played college ball at Snow J.C. and Mesa State, was an assistant coach for the Knights when they swept three straight 5A state titles from 2000-02.
(3 returning starters; Multiple-formation offense)
Ben Jackson returns at quarterback after starting the final five games of the 2013 season. He's a tough, gritty athlete who shows good leadership and can make a lot of great plays with his feet. Dayan Lake gives the Knights a dynamic, playmaking running back, and Dallas Moklebust, Jalen Dyson, Raven Kennedy, Jamison Clark, Mike McGee and Dante Joseph spearhead a solid receiving corps. The offensive line of Taylor Allen, Brogan Poll, Noah Kramer, Garrison Hinckley, Kyle Eichmeier and Albert Toa will try to make some space up front for an offense that scored 27 or more points six times last season.
(5 returning starters; 3-4-4 defense)
Kramer anchors the D-line, and the linebacker group of Lake, Kade Palmer, Tyler Brown and Brett Turek shapes up as a real strength for this team. The secondary also looks solid, led by Dyson, Rocky Lunceford, Moklebust and Jrue Perkins. There were good "Knights" and bad "Knights" for Northridge last season, as it held a couple of opponents to seven and zero points, but they allowed 21 or more points eight times in 10 games and gave up more than 40 twice.
Coaches preseason Region 1 straw poll: Third
Deseret News Region 1 prediction: Sixth
Bottom line: Northridge coach Erik Thompson knows how to win and has been doing it for a long time. His enrollment numbers have shrunk this season, though, and he'll have a lot of playmakers going both ways and doesn't have a lot of depth. Still, some of the kids who'll be suiting up for the Knights this year are among the most dynamic athletes in the state. And if they can avoid injuries, then these Knights could very well contend for the crown in what shapes up as an extremely balanced Region 1 title chase in 2014. Regular-season-ending road games at Davis and Layton could very well tell this Knights' tale in their quest for a league title and a state playoff berth.
Northridge coaching history
2004-current — Erik Thompson (68-41)
1996-2003 — Fred Fernandes (67-26)
1992-1995 — Mike Rosky (12-26)
Deseret News Mr. Football recipients
2001 — Daniel Coats, WR
Deseret News MVPs the past 10 years
2002 — Brian Kusuda, QB
Deseret News First Team All-Staters the past 10 years
2012 — James Baird, K
2012 — Eliyah Mayberry, DL
2012 — David Adams, RB
2011 — Karson Casteel, QB
2011 — David Adams, RB
2011 — Dallas Clark, OL
2011 — Austin Tate, LB
2010 — Brock Johnson, DB
2006 — Nate Ellis, RB
2006 — Mike Baker, DL
2004 — T.J. Canales, QB
2004 — Bryant Eteuati, KR