New coach, new attitude: Moore era begins

Red Devil linebacker Brady Roberts looks for an opening in the offensive line during Friday’s scrimmage at Kay Fackrell Stadium. Roberts is part of a core of linebackers — including Cohen Morrow, Kai Barker and Cole Robinette — who will lead the defense in 2023. (HERALD PHOTO/Don Cogger)

Stout defense, new-look offense have Red Devils optimistic

Friday night’s practice/controlled scrimmage was a marked improvement on how the day started, according to Steve Moore, Evanston High School’s head football coach; he found it hard to believe that the same group of players he sent off the field following practice Thursday night were the ones that showed up the next morning.

“Friday night was much improved,” Moore said, laughing. “Thursday night was really good, but Friday morning? Not so good. Friday night? Better. Then we had a little walkthrough on Saturday, just walking through pregame, getting all that figured out, so that it’s not a mess this week, and that was good. So, yeah — much improved. But Friday morning was not good — compared to the rest of the week, anyway.”

Up until that fateful Friday morning practice, Moore said the first week of practice for the 2023 season — his first as head coach after nearly two decades as an assistant — went better than he could have expected. Offseason workouts were well-attended, and with a strong core of returning players — coupled with a new-look offense and a defense that should rival any in the state — excitement for the program is palpable.

“It was actually a great week — busy week, bit of a grind — but a good week,” Moore said. “The kids worked hard. Spring ball was great, summer workouts were great — we had really good numbers. You don’t get all of them, but I think we saw most of them at least a few times throughout the summer. There are always other things going on, which is understandable and expected. But I was really pleased with the turnout this summer.”

Defense was a high point for the Red Devils in 2022, the final season under head coach Jim Burton, now the head coach in Lander. Evanston finished the season 2-7, but ended the campaign on a high note, beating I-80 rival Green River 44-7 in the final game of the season. It was the first win for the Red Devils in the newly-renovated Kay Fackrell Stadium, and sent the team into the offseason with some much-needed momentum.

Evanston’s defense dominated the Wolves in that contest, and nearly every player that started on that side of the ball is back this season.

“We’ve got a lot of seniors with a ton of varsity experience, especially on the defensive side of the ball,” Moore said. “We have a lot of starters returning — you look at last year, and the defense was pretty solid, for the most part. We’re really excited about that, hoping we can even improve in that area, now that kids understand our defensive scheme really well — now, they can just let their hair down and fly around.”

Leading the charge on defense are linebackers Cohen Morrow (All-State last season), Kai Barker, Brady Roberts and Cole Robinette. Morrow, Barker and Roberts have been starters since their sophomore year, and Robinette emerged last season as the kind of hitter that causes opposing quarterbacks to develop PTSD.

“Our linebacker core is really good,” Moore said. “Cohen Morrow, Cole Robinette, Brady Roberts and Kai Barker — Brecken Rich stepping in there, a little bit. Then we have some new faces in there, like Clayton Cook, who will probably see some time at outside backer — he can cover a lot of ground with that height, so that will be exciting, to see what he can do.”

The secondary and the defensive line also feature a number of returners, as well as some younger players ready to step up when called upon to make plays.

“In the secondary, we have Drew Barker coming back at free safety, quarterbacking the defense for us,” Moore said. “Having some experience there will be good. Braunson Sims has had some experience back there. At D-line, we have Zane Leland — he’s coming in with a preseason injury, we may not have him for the first game, but we’ll see. Tarrin Haws and Kenyen Muir return with some experience there, as does Steven Bowen. It’s pretty exciting on the defensive side of the ball, for sure.”

For Moore, the toughest thing so far about having a defensive unit full of players that love to hit is making sure they don’t hurt each other before they have a chance to play someone else.

“I’m not worried about the older kids’ physicality,” Moore said. “They’ve proved that the last two years — they’re not afraid to mix it up and get physical. We had to kind of tone it back with that crew this week, they don’t need to be banging heads with each other this early. The younger kids, we need to get them embracing that same mentality, and it will filter down — these seniors have done a great job leading.”

Offensively, Morrow will once again be taking the snaps at quarterback, with All-State running back Brady Roberts returning to lead the backfield. With Moore’s pledge to open up the offense this season, Morrow should have plenty of receivers to choose from, all with speed and athleticism.

“On offense, we have a lot of kids we want to get the ball to, plain and simple,” Moore said. “We have Cohen coming back at quarterback, got some experience there. Brady Roberts at running back, Kai Barker out at receiver, Drew Barker at receiver, Clayton Cook — again, that height. Aiden Liechty possibly at fullback, a big, strong kid with speed. Gabe Hutchinson, another kid with speed on the edge — we’re excited, we definitely want to spread the ball around, get the ball out there in the hands of these kids who can make things happen.”

The Red Devils lost a pair of All-Star offensive linemen — Braxton Bauer and Carsen VanGieson — to graduation, but Moore said he is encouraged by the players that have stepped up to fill those shoes.

“Our line is coming along — we have the Welling boys up there, [Tarrin] Haws and Kenyen [Muir] — I think it’s going to work out pretty good,” Moore said. “There’s a lot to be excited about, and we can’t wait to get going.”

The Red Devils open the 2023 season at home Friday against Ben Lomond from Ogden, Utah, Evanston’s opening-day opponent the last three seasons. The last two games against the Scots have been decided by a combined two points, with the Red Devils winning on a Kai Barker interception of a two-point conversion in the end zone 14-13 in 2021, and Ben Lomond stopping Evanston on a two-point conversion last season to win 23-22.

Moore said for the Red Devils to be successful, everyone needs to embrace their role on the team; each player is just as important as another.

“We stress that all roles are equal — you need to find your role, what role are you going to play in this team’s success,” Moore said. “There are all kinds. It may not mean you’re the guy getting the ball 15 times a game — but that’s OK. Find your role. Every role is important, and they all have equal value to us.”