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ST. GEORGE — Last season was a rough one for the Trailblazers in the program's first full slate of games as a Division I program, but head coach Paul Peterson is eager to push his team to the next level.
Utah Tech, the school formerly known as Dixie State, won only one game in the 2021 season. And not only did they struggle with injuries to some of their key players, the Trailblazers also had a brutal schedule that featured seven FCS playoff teams. But Peterson is expecting more consistency from his players now that they've had a taste against some of the top talent in the sport.
"That's what we wanted," Peterson said. "We played the teams that are the top notch at the FCS level, and we were close. Some of the games were really close and then they got away from us a little bit. We've got the right guys. If we keep developing then we can be there."
After having that valuable experience against higher-level teams, the 2022 Trailblazers should look much improved from a year ago. Let's take a look at what can be expected from their roster.
Utah Tech has not named a starting quarterback, which is something they look to decide during fall camp. The battle is between last year's starter in Kobe Tracy, Hawaii transfer Boone Abbott and Washington State transfer Victor Gabalis. Peterson said that even after they decide on a starter, the other two quarterbacks may still see some action.
Utah Tech returns Quali Conley at running back, who looked good in the 2021 spring season when he ran for 400 yards and four touchdowns on 83 carries. In the fall, Conley took a backseat as other players returned from injury; the backfield seems to be all his in 2022.
One player Peterson said he's excited to have healthy again is Deven Osborne. The 6-foot-7 receiver injured his hamstring in the team's first game last fall and was not able to return to full health during the year.
"We've got a really good leader in Deven," Peterson said. "He's just phenomenal. He's healthy and ready to go, so we anticipate him stepping up."
Alongside Osborne will be a group of other talented players, including Rickie Johnson and Michael Moten, last season's second- and third-leading receivers. Tight ends Jay Mceuen and freshman Eric Olsen could also play a big role.
In the trenches, the Trailblazers return all five offensive linemen. Ty Hyde and Bayo Kannike are the starting tackles, while Nathen Aceves, Walter Pongia and David Shinn will play on the interior. Peterson likes the depth they added to the line, so there could be some other names that step up and make an impact.
Safety Tyrell Grayson, who led the team in tackles in 2021 with 103 across 11 games while also adding two interceptions, and linebacker Will Leota were the lone Trailblazers named to the WAC Preseason All-Conference team last season.
"He shows up and he is a sure tackler," Peterson said of Grayson. "He played a little bit injured, he wasn't 100% and he was still able to be as productive as he was. He has all the tools to continue to grow and he is going to continue to make plays in the back end for sure."
Leota was a big contributor as a true freshman last season; and even though he was a little undersized in his first collegiate season, he possesses a true "knack for the ball," according to Peterson. Over the summer he added more weight and is ready to build upon an impressive freshman year.
Darrius Nash is one of the few veteran players for Utah Tech, and he forms a formidable safety tandem in the back end with Grayson. Colby Williams and Devyn Perkins will round out the secondary at corner.
Linebacker Malaki Malaki is another playmaker to watch for at linebacker. As a team captain, he is one of the most vocal leaders on the team. He's also very productive on the field, and finished second on the team in tackles while leading the team in tackles for loss.
Along the defensive line, redshirt senior Dylan Hendrickson, who already has his master's degree in accounting, is one of the mainstays at defensive end. Similar to the offensive line, the Trailblazers added a lot of young players they are expecting to rotate and contribute right away.
The Trailblazers took a big jump in competition last year when they made the move to Division I, but Peterson wanted his young players to get as much experience as they could right away. This is still a young team, but they should fare a lot better now that they have a better feel for the level of play.
One fun matchup will be Utah Tech's home-and-home series against new conference rival Southern Utah. The Thunderbirds are within an hour's drive away from St. George and figure to form a heated rivalry in all sports. Already scheduled to play once in 2022, the teams added an additional game after the University of the Incarnate Word left the WAC over the summer.