Northridge football preview: Knights lost key seniors but return several from season that restored belief
LAYTON — Football seasons come, they play out on the field and then they exist in memories, photographs and books.
Every year, high school football coaches will preach ad nauseam that ‘last year was last year’ and has ‘no effect on this year.’
Despite this apparent truth, something has to be said for Northridge High’s football team going 7-4 last season. It was a huge turnaround from an 0-10 mark in 2020 and prompted the reasonable question about whether such a turnaround would have any carry-over effect on 2022.
According to coach Andrew Fresques and a couple of players, it did.
“Definitely that belief is there a lot more,” Fresques said. “They understand what we’re capable of and I think these guys really believe, and we talk about that group last year really kind of turned the tides, but we expect the same if not better.”
Combine a little extra gasoline in the “belief tank” with several returning starters on both sides of the ball, talent and athleticism, and a better competitive spot in Region 5, and Northridge football appears poised for something resembling a reload this year.
That’s in spite of the Knights graduating basically all of their best players from last year: quarterback Maximus “Lofa” Fonoti-Maikui (now at Utah State), receiver/linebacker Josh Acord (Southern Utah), four-year starting lineman Austin Joy (Morningside University) and linebacker Caden Strong.
“The seniors that we lost — critical, critical to our success but the good thing is, yeah, a ton of underclassmen played last year,” Fresques said.
But, eight starters return on offense and six return on defense. So Fresques believes that, like the colorful vegetable garden on the east side of the high school, there’s some good stuff happening just down the road from Hill Air Force Base.
Leading the returning group on offense is junior tight end Zach Smith, who had 31 catches for 706 yards and six touchdowns. He joins senior running back AJ Tillman (804 rushing yards, 12 TDS, 7.7 yards per carry in eight games) and senior Malikai Williams (23 catches, 555 yards, three TDs).
Williams is in the mix at quarterback. He played QB last year when Fonoti-Maikui was hurt. No matter who Northridge’s quarterback is this year, the dynamic will change under center.
“Lofa was a big dude and he was really calm in the pocket,” center Owen Viner said. “I think we’ll do fine because we’ve got Malikai, Porter (Olsen), (Jake) Benzely, we got all of them and they’re really good, but the height, that’s the one thing. Lofa was like 6-2, he could see over most of his linemen, but all of (the new quarterbacks) are shorter than us.”
That situation may create more chaotic situations where Northridge quarterbacks roll out of the pocket, either to see their receivers or take off and run.
“It more means once he rolls out, we gotta flow with that because that’s what the D-linemen are going to do, so it’s just about holding our blocks longer, which I think we could do,” Viner said.
This is Fresques’ third season as Northridge head coach. When he first got to the school, he preached discipline and details. The current seniors were sophomores when Fresques laid his groundwork.
“Discipline’s like a really big thing here I’d say,” senior Mason Obray said. “That’s one of our main things we try to focus on, so I just feel like making sure we’re focusing on that all three years has allowed us to get better.”
Obray, a receiver and cornerback, will be one of a handful of key returners on defense leading the way along with linebacker Colton Stokes (team leader in tackles for loss with 10), defensive back Jaxon Fresques and lineman JJ Speredon. Obray led the team with three interceptions in 2021.
Defense was Northridge’s weaker aspect as it allowed 25.4 points per game last year. Limiting big plays will be key for the Knights, who face teams with big-play potential.
Like Fresques said, the team’s reloading but has a lot of work to do. So until Aug. 12, it’s more discipline and details.
After nearly 30 years in Region 1, Northridge seems to have found its place in Region 5 with schools that have similar athletic participation numbers.
So, who’s the Knights’ rival in Region 5? It’s a new one, but also an old one.
“Bonneville for sure, yeah,” Obray said.
FACTS and FIGURES
2021 season: 7-4, 3-2 Region 5. From 0-10 in 2020 to 7-4 in 2021, Northridge experienced one of the best turnaround seasons in the state. The Knights averaged 35.5 points per game on offense last year and generally were a fun team to watch. They lost 28-26 at Bonneville in the first round of the playoffs.
2022 strength of schedule: 40-63 (.388). Northridge stepped up its strength of schedule slightly this year, adding Snow Canyon in place of Taylorsville, and Higley (Arizona) in place of a second game with Cottonwood. There are plenty of winnable games. The one that’s probably circled on the calendar is Aug. 19 at Layton.
Players to watch: Mason Obray (CB/S), Malikai Williams (QB), Owen Viner (C), AJ Tillman (RB), Zach Smith (TE), Easton Gertge (WR/DB), Colton Stokes (LB), JJ Speredon (DL)
Returning starters: 8 offense, 6 defense
Strength/Weakness: Experience and athleticism/Size
Northridge will face Snow Canyon and Higley (Arizona) for the first time in school history this year. Those games will also be Northridge’s first games against a St. George school (Snow Canyon) and an Arizona school (Higley is in Gilbert, Arizona).
Northridge may have graduated SUU-bound receiver Josh Acord (1,095 yards), but the next five leading returning receivers combined for 1,796 receiving yards in 2021.
Easton Gertge ranked third Region 5 in kick return yards last year with 315 (on 11 returns, he averaged 28.6 yards).
Northridge’s last playoff win was in 2012 against Granger. Since then, the Knights are 0-6 in the postseason.
All games at 7 p.m.
Aug. 12: at Snow Canyon
Aug. 19: at Layton
Aug. 26: Murray
Sept. 2: at Cottonwood
Sept. 9: Box Elder*
Sept. 16: Woods Cross*
Sept. 23: at Viewmont*
Sept. 30: Bonneville*
Oct. 7: at Bountiful*
Oct. 14: Higley (AZ)
* — Denotes Region 5 game
Connect with reporter Patrick Carr via email at email@example.com, Twitter @patrickcarr_ and Instagram @standardexaminersports.