A season ago, the Evanston High School football team was a program in flux, transitioning to a new head coach and searching for an identity.
Year two of the Jim Burton era began last week with the start of practices, and the head coach is excited for the challenge the upcoming season presents.
“We’re looking pretty good — not as many kids showed up for the first week as we thought, so we’re still a little light on depth,” Burton said. “We have a few nicks and bumps here and there, but we’re feeling pretty good.”
The Red Devils are coming off an 0-8 campaign in 2019, after posting a 6-4 record and qualifying for the 3A state playoffs the year before. But that record doesn’t speak to the competitiveness of that squad — three of those eight losses were by a touchdown or less, with three more a one-score game until the fourth quarter.
“By the end of the season — as banged up as we got — the last two games got away from us,” Burton said about losses to Jackson and eventual state champion Star Valley. “But the big thing was, we were in games — we’re fighting, we’re scrapping — and that’s the thing we’re looking for, that effort and fight.”
The Red Devils will rely on a handful of returners — seniors Jagger Mitchell, Cade Francom, Stetson Wiedrich and junior Jaxin Moore — to provide leadership on and off the field this season. With a week of practice in the books, Burton said rosters for varsity and JV are coming together quickly.
“We’re pretty much there as far as our rosters go — there are a few kids we’re waiting to see if they can step it up, but otherwise the teams are pretty set,” he said.
Mitchell and Moore have each been getting reps at quarterback, with a final decision on an opening-game starter due sometime this week. Both players have been working hard and has a unique skill set they bring to the table.
“We’re still platooning a little bit at quarterback, just trying to see what fits best for us,” Burton said.
“It may happen that we go into Friday with two, which is always bad. We’re trying to figure out what best fits the needs of this team. They both have strengths.”
As for what the team’s offense will look like, Burton said what the Red Devils may lack in size, they’ll make up for in speed.
“The big thing is we’re going to be fast, and we’re going to play fast,” he explained. “We’ll run the ball quite a bit. But we’re going to take our shots when we see them.”
The same will hold true on defense.
“Our defense will be pretty quick — we’re going to be attacking and aggressive,” Burton said. “We’re not going to be the biggest team, but we’re pretty fast up front. And we have some good speed at the back end. Linebackers — we’re still waiting on a few kids to see exactly who’s going to fit where. We should be fast and aggressive, for sure.”
Burton will be assisted on the varsity this season by Roy Barker, Steve Moore, Garth Wagstaff, Jason Mitchell and Chris Link.
John Fager and Matthew Smith are the freshman coaches.
As for season expectations, Burton said his team will be competitive, and is committed to a return to the postseason.
“We expect to win games,” Burton said. “We expect to be competitive. We expect to be in the playoffs. We really do expect to get a home playoff game, and that hasn’t happened here for a long time. That’s one of our big goals, to get one here.”
Starting a season in the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic is a tall order for all the fall sports teams — especially in terms of building team chemistry in an era of social distancing. Burton said he and his staff have been encouraging the upperclassmen on the team to act as mentors to the younger kids.
“Our upperclassmen have been a great example to the younger kids so far,” he said. “We’re trying to foster some mentorship in them — so that not only are they working for themselves, they’re also trying to set the future up, as well. We’ll ask a senior, ‘Hey, who’s an underclassman who has made you better this week?’ That’s kind of a cool thing we’re working on — fostering those mentor/mentee relationships so that we’re helping each other.”
The Red Devils open their 2020 campaign Friday in a home contest against Ben Lomond High School, out of Ogden. The Scots began their season two weeks ago, and will come into Kay Fackrell Stadium with a 1-1 record.
For Evanston to be successful, the Red Devils will need to contain Scots quarterback Ryan Alvarez — the speedy senior scored three rushing touchdowns in a 28-13 win in the season opener against Providence Hall, and scored his team’s only touchdown on a 70-yard punt return last week in a 21-7 loss to American Leadership Academy.
“They’re a run-first team, kind of like us, Burton said of the Scots. “Their quarterback (Alvarez), he’s their guy to watch — he’s pretty shifty, pretty fast. We’ll have to figure out how to keep him under control, for sure.”
Friday’s game is scheduled to kick off at 7 p.m. The Red Devils will also be home the following week (Sept. 4), when they welcome in defending 2A State Champion Mountain View.