It’s really not fair to compare football players with other boys fall sports athletes and have them share the same space as next-level prospects. Those other sports don’t have a National Signing Day broadcast on major sports networks, tons of early commitments and a seemingly endless collection of full-ride scholarships.
As I tackle the assignment of identifying the current Utah Valley high school boys most likely to be successful at the collegiate level, I therefore must separate the gridiron stars from the rest of the top performers doing their thing this fall season.
So, which Utah Valley football stars have caught the eye of college recruiters?
Isaiah Nacua, Timpview defensive end
He has not been a resident of Utah Valley for long, but senior defensive end Isaiah Nacua of Timpview is already making a ton of noise. A year ago, the 6-foot-3, 250-pound lineman was playing at Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas, where he was considered the state’s top Class of 2014 prospect.
A move to Provo and four games in a Thunderbird uniform, and football fans in this area can see why. Nacua has recorded 10 quarterback sacks in those four games, and he has chased quarterbacks into several more.
“It’s always good to have a dominating defensive end to step in when another one leaves (Pita Taumoepenu graduated a year ago after leading Timpview to a state title),” said head coach Cary Whittingham. “There is a lot of interest out there in Isaiah. He is athletic with size and he will likely play defensive end at the next level.”
All of the in-state schools covet the talented Nacua, and at one point, while in Las Vegas, some recruiting services had reported that he had committed to BYU, but Whittingham believes he is currently uncommitted, and that opens the door to a major recruiting battle as signing day draws near. This kid looks like a game-changer.
Zac Dawe, Pleasant Grove defensive lineman
One player who has stated his intentions to join the Cougar defense is Pleasant Grove lineman Zac Dawe. The state wrestling champion plays both offensive and defensive line for a vastly improved Viking team, but his greatest strength is as a run-stopping down lineman.
At 6-4, 280 pounds, Dawe has the look of a potential defensive tackle in Bronco Mendenhall’s system, but he is the kind of player that BYU could look at using on either side of the ball, as well as inside or outside.
Devin Kaufusi, Timpview defensive end
Playing football at BYU almost feels like the family business for someone named Kaufusi, and word is that the T-Bird junior has already committed to join his brothers and his father down the street at Cougar Stadium. At 6-foot-6, Kaufusi has the height that colleges covet for the defensive end position, and his frame appears ready to add onto his current just-over-200-pound weight.
“Devin is athletic enough to move around and he can play some outside backer for us,” Whittingham said. “He definitely has defensive end height and should put on the size to go with that.”
Right now, Kaufusi is enjoying being a part of one of the most dominating defensive lines in the state, teaming with Nacua, Max Anae and Gabe Reid to terrorize opposing quarterbacks.
Baron Gajkowski, Lone Peak quarterback
Two years ago, a sophomore quarterback came off the bench for Jordan High during the state semifinal game against eventual state champion Lone Peak. Baron Gajkowski was the back-up to freshman sensation Austin Kafentzis at the time, and that night, he went toe-to-toe with Mr. Football, Chase Hansen, the Knights’ senior signal caller.
Gajkowski and his teammates did not win that game, but he did open a lot of eyes about his skill set. Last season, as a junior, his family moved into the Lone Peak boundaries and he became the successor to Hansen under center. Now a senior, Gajkowski is finishing off his own successful high school career, preparing for his jump to the next level.
“Baron is one of the most competitive players I have coached,” said Lone Peak’s first-year head coach Mike Mower. “His tenacity and toughness is second to none. He is very effective passing and running — a true duel threat. Perhaps I am a bit biased, but I truly believe he is one of the best quarterbacks in the state, if not the best when you factor in the run and pass.”
Mower stated that Gajkowski has received an offer from Utah State, but he is not sure he has made a commitment.
James Empey, American Fork offensive/defensive lineman
When you are 6-4 and 265 pounds as a high school junior, and an outstanding athlete, heads turn whenever scouts are in the vicinity. That is the case for James Empey, American Fork’s talented two-way junior lineman, who has been offered by both Utah and Utah State.
“James is a big, physical kid who just loves everything about the game of football,” said American Fork head coach Aaron Behm. “We talk a lot about enjoying the 12-month process of being a football player, and James eats all that up. He has great technique, and loves to play against the best. Combining this along with his size, strength and great work ethic will make him successful at the next level. Not to mention he is a great student in the classroom.”
Jonah Trinnaman, American Fork receiver
Caveman wide receiver Jonah Trinnaman is one of the most explosive players in the state and so far, Utah State is one school that has offered to bring that high energy to the collegiate level. He turns short gains into big ones and that is a skill they love at the next level, with 4.4 40-yard dash speed as the kicker.
“Jonah has everything a D1 coach wants to see — size, speed, strength, physicality and great play making ability,” Behm said. “Jonah is one of those kids who can take an ordinary play and make it extraordinary simply because the ball is in his hands. He can score in so many ways — screens, sweeps, deep balls or take a short hitch for a 50-yard gain. He isn’t just fast for a high school kid, he is just plain fast and that will make him successful at the next level.”
Emmett Tela, Timpview linebacker
Once you get past that Timpview front four, it would seem safe, but that is when you run into one of the big hitters in the Valley, 6-foot, 210-pound Emmett Tela. The senior, who has been offered by the University of Hawaii, shifts back and forth between linebacker and safety, and according to Whittingham, projects best as a nickel back at the next level.
Regardless what his official position on the Thunderbird defense is, the best place to look for Tela is around the football, because he will always be there.
“Emmett has good speed and projects as a nickel back, but he could also play as a linebacker,” Whittingham said. “He is dependable and smart and that makes him a tough matchup wherever he is playing.”
Austin Kruger, Lone Peak offensive/defensive tackle
It’s another case of size being impossible to coach. When an athletic lineman stands 6-foot-4 and weighs in at 280 pounds, it is worth a look. So far, there have not been offers given to Lone Peak’s Austin Kruger, but they are likely to come. Both Utah and Utah State have expressed interest in the Knight big man who is making a difference in the interior of the Lone Peak defensive line as well as in a protective role for Gajkowski.
Other football players worth watching: Young players at Spanish Fork, such as quarterback Jason Money, lineman Adrian Rodriguez, receiver Joey Anderson and linebacker John Leilua are just starting to get noticed during their junior campaign. At Timpanogos, nothing is set for college options, but defensive end Austin Seegmiller, quarterback Jackson Dunford, linebacker Tanu Aupiu, defensive lineman Filo Tuavao and defensive end TJ Masina are all getting looks.
Salem Hills quarterback Porter Gustin has the kind of arm that is sure to draw interest, and freshman Andrew Slack of Springville is an offensive tackle who has the size that is already getting the attention of college scouts.
Three dark horses: Not sure why I would use that term to describe these three players, but each has something about him that might cause scouts to shy away, but something else that certainly catches everyone’s eye.
Springville tight end Max Schreiner – A year ago, Max Schreiner was not playing football, but was a basketball star for the Red Devils. At 6-4, 220, the senior may not have a great position fit in college basketball, but now he is out on the football field.
It might be a bit late in coming, but people are noticing this tight end with that size and those hands. It’s not like he would be the first basketball player to transition to a starring role as a tight end. Not sure what will happen with this all coming his senior year, but he may land somewhere and surprise some people.
Gabe Reid, Timpview defensive end – There is no questioning the motor on Gabe Reid, another member of that lethal Timpview defensive front, but according to Whittingham, his size may make a D1 scholarship hard to come by, particularly his height at just 6-foot-1.
The more they see him play, you have to believe the more they will like Reid. He is everywhere for the T-Birds.
Britain Covey, Timpview – I debated … with myself … what to put under position for the junior who is currently playing quarterback for the T-Birds. It seems Whittingham figures the best way to get the ball in his hands is to simply snap it to him.
Covey is undersized, very generously listed at 5-10 and 160 pounds, but I am not sure he reaches either of those numbers. Seems a bit small for big-time college football, but when you see this guy run after a catch or return kicks, there is special skill there, and you would think someone will take a run at him.
Boys in other fall sports
Identifying athletes who will compete at the next level in sports like cross country and boys golf is a much more difficult proposition, but Utah Valley is filled with talented prospects in both sports. According to Lone Peak head golf coach, and local PGA pro, Rob Stanger, the change in the mission age by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has had a significant impact on recruiting of golfers, and it would be safe to say that the same is true in cross country.
” The coaches that I have spoken to ask the same first question,” Stanger said. “What are their church mission plans?”
With that in mind, one of Stanger’s golfers, Berkely Stulce is sure to get looks from D1 schools as well as schools in other areas. The senior was first-team all-state a year ago for the 5A runner-up Knights, and he has won a number of early Region 4 tournaments this season.
Junior Kai Ruiz of Maple Mountain, who is being looked at by BYU, and junior Benson Rhees of Spanish Fork are two other Utah Valley golfers with an opportunity to play at the next level. Sophomore Brock Stanger, the nephew of Rob, who plays at Orem High, is commanding attention as well. His older brother Dalton plays at BYU, although he is currently serving an LDS mission.
Clayson Shumway is another athlete who moved into Utah just in time for his senior year of high school. The Colorado state 5A cross country champion last year as a junior is now running for Lone Peak and he is turning heads. Shumway was already on the Division 1 radar before the move, and he certainly remains there.
Westlake runner Austin Brower is another Valley cross country star who has received interest from college coaches. According to his coaches, BYU, Wisconsin, Nebraska and Alabama are among the suitors.
In addition to Shumway and Brower, McKay Mace of Timpanogos, Sam Sorenson from Mountain View and a trio of American Fork runners — Connor McMillan, Caleb Thompson and Tyler Bell — are also setting the pace and being watched by those at the next level.