4A football preview: Teams to watch out for going into the 2022 season

Dixie High School and Ridgeline High School compete in the 4A championship game at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Friday, Nov. 12, 2021.

Dixie High School and Ridgeline High School compete in the 4A championship game at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Friday, Nov. 12, 2021. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

Estimated read time: 6-7 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — High school football will be played this week. Now is a better time than ever to take a look at the projected top programs in high school football in the 4A classification.

It's important to clarify that these are not necessarily rankings or in any sort of order; rather these are the four 4A teams you should become familiar with before the season starts.

Desert Hills Thunder

After a 2021 season in which they went undefeated in Region 10 play, Desert Hills secured the No. 1 seed in the state tournament. There, they lost in the quarterfinals to Pine View. The best could be yet to come, though, as the Thunder are set to return a large number of key players.

Headlining that list is quarterback Noah Fuailetolo, who appeared in 11 games as a junior. He completed 58% of his passes for an impressive 2,308 passing yards, 26 touchdowns and five interceptions. Fuailetolo had a pair of impressive receivers to throw to in Eric Olsen and Awsten Turnbow, but they have since graduated. Can Lincoln Holmes or Tayven Mortensen be the weapons that he needs in 2022?

On the ground, Tyden Morris shouldered most of the load with 165 carries for 932 yards and 14 touchdowns. Morris definitely has the potential to surpass 1,000 yards in his senior season. As a bonus, he is also a solid receiver, where he caught 27 passes for 258 yards and a touchdown.

Defensively, Desert Hills lost some of their best players. They do have some interesting pieces returning, like linebacker Cyrus Polu, who saw a little bit of action as a freshman; Polu recorded 25 tackles and three tackles for loss. Lincoln Holmes is another linebacker to look out for; he is the leading returning tackler with 55 tackles.

Tayven Mortensen will no doubt be a key piece of the secondary after bringing in five interceptions as a junior.

Overall, the defense at Desert Hills could start a little slow out of the gates as the Thunder attempt to get a largely inexperienced group up to speed. On offense, however, Fuailetolo and Morris should pick up where they left off and will lead a dangerous group.

Ridgeline Riverhawks

Ridgeline pulled off an impressive undefeated 2021 season that was capped off with a championship. After taking home the 2021 4A title, the Riverhawks are still in a good position to make another deep run in the playoffs.

The RIverhawks will go into the 2022 season having lost all of their major weapons on offense, though. Last year's starting quarterback Kaden Cox was one of the best passers in all of Utah, throwing for over 3,700 yards and 55 touchdowns to only two interceptions. Stepping up this year will be Jackson Olsen, who led the Riverhawks in receiving yards and also put up 17 touchdowns.

Leading rusher Noah White ran for over 2,000 yards on nearly 250 carries and added 19 touchdowns on the ground. Olsen will likely utilize his athleticism and carry the ball a good amount, but the lead back is currently anybody's guess.

WIth Olsen now at quarterback and 1,000-yard receiver Stratford Simmons graduating, there are also big holes at wide receiver. Braylon Majors caught 27 passes for 396 yards and three touchdowns and is the most experienced returning receiver.

Defensively, the Riverhawks fare a lot better. They return several impactful starters on defense like Tanner Paskett, who led the team last year with 10 sacks and 14 tackles for loss. Luke Sorenson is another name to watch out for on the defensive line — you can't miss him. At 6-foot-6, Sorenson recorded three sacks and seven tackles for loss last year; expect those numbers to improve.

Ridgeline lost a lot of what led them to a state title, but they did not lose enough to write them off. It will be interesting to see what changes the offense makes with Olsen under center. The defense should continue to shut down opponents.

Green Canyon Wolves

Although the Wolves suffered an early exit in last year's playoffs, they return perhaps the most talent out of the top 4A teams. Green Canyon will retain their top performers at each skill position.

At quarterback, Jack Stephens returns and should improve upon his 1,500 yard, 10 touchdown and eight interception season. Where Stephens truly shines is on the ground, however, as he notched over 100 carries that he turned into 500 yards and four touchdowns.

The team's leading rusher is also returning in running back Gavin Christiansen, who ran for 762 yards and six touchdowns on 150 carries. With Stephens and Christiansen together, the Wolves have a potent pair of runners.

At receiver, last year's leader, Caden Stuart, will be Stephens' main target again. Stuart caught 49 passes and turned that into 553 yards but only one touchdown. Stuart's experience will no doubt be valuable, but Green Canyon will continue to be a run-first team.

Where the Wolves look truly intimidating is on defense where they have eight of last year's starters coming back. Last year's leading tacklers, Peyton Johnson and Tate White, headline the group and both have the potential to clear 100 tackles.

Will Wheatley — still only a junior — led the team in sacks and tackles for loss last year and is the favorite to do it in 2022. The defense has no reason to not be the best in 4A. If Stephens can take a step forward as a passer, the Green Canyon Wolves have a legitimate shot at the title.

Snow Canyon Warrior

Always a force from down south, the Warriors are set up for a lot of success in 2022. After finishing Region 10 play with a 3-3 record in 2021, Snow Canyon is set to return a ton of talent on both sides of the ball.

On offense, quarterback Hunter Johnson is returning alongside his three leading receivers. The squad will be playing behind four returning starters on the offensive line, as well.

Johnson threw for 2,118 yards and 26 touchdowns to 14 interceptions, and completed 61% of passes last year. He has a good chance to finish as the top quarterback in 4A. Johnson also added 104 carries for 392 yards and five touchdowns — all team highs on the ground. He was the only runner to register over 100 carries, the next closest had 43.

Clearly the Warriors like to air the ball out, and they have a trio of receivers that will feast. Brooks Esplin, Jake Hill and Will Warner were the top three receivers in yards and touchdowns. It will be fun to see the three continue their chemistry with Johnson throwing the ball.

Defensively, the Warriors have a strong secondary led by corner Brooks Esplin, who brought in two interceptions and defended five passes last year. Jake Hill and Brandon Gough are other names to watch out for in the defensive backfield.

Outside linebacker Rockwell Jones was fourth on the team with 84 tackles and added 2.5 tackles for loss last year. He plays behind a stout defensive line that includes Rio Ochoa and Phoenix Oliver.

All in all, Snow Canyon will be buoyed by their extensive returning experience. If they can get solid production from their new starters, look out for the Warriors.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Pine View
  • Sky View
  • Crimson Cliffs
  • Dixie

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