Defending 2A champion San Juan Broncos believe they can repeat as they kick off the 2022 football season
by Rhett Sifford
When the San Juan High School football team kicks off the 2022 football season at home this Friday, August 13 against the Layton Christian Eagles it will have been exactly nine months since they won the 2021 2A Utah State Football Championship over Beaver at Weber State University.
But since the day they hoisted that trophy there have been many changes to the team that will take the field this weekend. No less than 20 seniors have graduated. The 2022 edition of the Broncos returns just two offensive starters and five on defense.
The consensus among 2A coaches is that the losses are too much for San Juan to repeat as champions. In the Deseret News preseason poll, the votes put the Beavers in the top spot with the Broncos ranked #2.
San Juan folks believe they can silence the critics as they prepare to open the season against what will be a very challenging Layton Christian squad.
Sixth-year head coach of the Broncos, Barkley Christensen, refers to this campaign as a “reloading” season rather than a “rebuilding” season. He told the Des News, “We expect to be playing for another state championship this year and look forward to seeing what this new team can do.”
I visited a San Juan practice recently and got my own opportunity to chat with the now state champion head coach of the Broncos to talk about the upcoming season. Here is most of our conversation:
RS: It’s exciting to talk with you again. I know this is your favorite time of year – brand new season. You’re defending state champions this year but it’s a completely different crew. You lost a whole lot from last year.
BC: Yeah we did. We bring back some key pieces: our leading tackler from last year and a guy who scored twice in the state championship game. But it is a whole new puzzle. That’s what game one is all about is figuring that out.
I don’t even know what to expect because Layton Christian is a whole new team and they bring a lot back. So game one is just going to be figuring it out what our identity is and what we’re going to do. So that’s kind of exciting but also what makes me so anxious and nervous.
RS: Speaking of Jerzy Nieves, today he guaranteed a repeat championship.
BC: Yeah, and like I told Local 10 when he guaranteed it to them too, Jerzy’s Jerzy and I’m sure he gave a lot of teams some locker room material. But I love his confidence and all these kids’ confidence and that’s what you have to have.
That’s what we had last year. That’s what our basketball team had last year. You have to come in with the mentality that you’re going to win it again or you’re not going to do it.
RS: You talk about that championship. You guys know what it takes. What’s your feeling with this team starting out this year?
BC: It looks good. We haven’t missed a beat. It’s nice when we lose a great quarterback in Jace Palmer and bring another one in who’s by far the smartest quarterback that I’ve had.
He knows the offense and he’s been in it since eighth grade. So he’s been doing this for years already and we haven’t missed a beat.
I don’t know what we could do better right now in practice. We’ll take drives and it’s so fluid. Obviously Layton Christian when they come and hit us for the first time plans will change, but right now it looks great. I think we’re right there in shape to do it again.
RS: Last year you talked about how you just put the plan in motion and the kids handled it themselves. You said you’re going to be more hands-on this year. Is that still the case?
BC: I thought I would be more than I have been. Defensively it’s going to be baby steps. We lost so much with the defense; we don’t have Jensen [Grover] at middle linebacker. Magnum [Nielson] will fill in great but he’s never played that position for us and he’ll have to be the quarterback of the field.
Offensively [junior quarterback] Parker [Snyder] is stepping in. We have a plan to go fast like you saw at the end of last year and I think we’ll be fine. But like you said there are just so many unknowns and we’ll find out after week one.
RS: Even starting right now before the first game of the season you’re going to have to have a “next man up” mentality. You talk about some of your injuries; you obviously lost a lot to graduation. Now we just talk about the injuries you’ve sustained already this year – one key guy especially in Collin Baker.
BC: Yeah Collin going down hurts big time on offense and defense, but he doesn’t want us to hang our heads and lose focus. We’ve moved guys around; Jerzy is playing the slot position and he looks phenomenal there.
He’s kind of been a plug guy, a Swiss Army Knife for us the last three years and he’s just going to continue to do that. It gives a lot of other guys an opportunity and Collin will be back. It’s not a season-ender we don’t think.
So maybe this is a good opportunity for these kids to step up and then in the playoffs we just have that much more depth.
RS: Are you seeing that already from some of your younger kids? Are guys stepping up into some of these spots?
BC: Yes, and usually when you have these injuries at small schools you’re dipping into sophomores, maybe even freshmen. We’re dipping into our juniors. So juniors who maybe thought they weren’t going to see time all summer are getting an opportunity and they look good.
We have three of them right now who are rotating and I’m comfortable with all three. So it might just be a steady rotation until we find the hot hand. That’s fun when you can just plug in and still get results.
RS: Moving down to 2A last year you had a target on your backs; people knew you were going to be the team to beat. Even larger target this year as defending champions.
BC: We do have a target and we’re going to get every team’s best. We have to understand that. We have to bring it every single game. We’re not going to surprise anybody.
That’s how it kind of was last year. I think back to the Delta game. They gave us everything they had and it got scary for a minute and that’s what it’s going to be week in and week out.
Layton Christian’s going to come in here; they know who they’re playing, so we have to be strapped up and go from the first whistle.
RS: You talk about that element of surprise. Are we going to see anything different offensively or defensively from you or will it just be the tried-and-true bread and butter?
BC: It’s pretty much tried-and-true bread and butter. You’re going to see us go fast all year like you saw at the end of last year. That’s just how we’ve approached practice and conditioning is just be the most conditioned team in 2A.
We have to have guys play both ways. Kids are built different here at San Juan. They’re tough and they can go both ways, they can play fast. That’s just what we expect.
RS: What does it take to get that back-to-back championship?
BC: It’s going to take, I think, a lot of patience. We’re probably going to be expected to just come out of the gate on fire like last year, but that may not be the case. Week one we’ll find out a lot of surprises and things we weren’t expecting.
You can start off oh and five and you’re still in a position to win a state championship. As long as we learn from the losses and the mistakes, we just have to be patient and find out what this team does well.
Last year we were very fortunate with limited injuries. We had just one season-ending injury and this year we already have four kids who are banged up. It’s going to be trying new things. You might get defeated on this series but we have to learn from it.
Last year we returned everybody so we knew what to expect. This year we didn’t, so maybe that first drive our whole plan goes out the window because this or that doesn’t work with this group.
That’s why I’m excited we’re playing Layton Christian because it’s a very quality team. That’s a 2A, 3A title contender as well.
RS: Are there any names on your team that we maybe haven’t heard yet who have surprised you coaches this year?
BC: A lot of our offensive line because we only bring one starter back. So you’re going to hear Jared Burke on the offensive line, our center. Callen Burke, who you heard on defense last year. Taeg Palmer is coming back from injury. Hughston Ketchum.
But in the skill positions, obviously Parker Snyder. I think people have heard about him from coming in at the end of games [last season]. Zack Conway is going to be a household name. I hope you’re calling his name a lot. We’re expecting 1,000 yards out of him.
Magnum Nielson on the offensive side of the ball. Receivers, Anthony Done stepped in during the summer 7-on-7 and earned a starting slot position. Garrett Young. Brigham Nielson, Tyler Pehrson, and Keaton Ivins are the juniors who are going to have to step up and play.
Defensively Trace Bennett is going to be a big one for us alongside Magnum Nielson at middle linebacker. Again, Zack Conway. Hudson Whatcott at defensive back. He’s worked hard the last three years.
RS: You talked a little bit about Parker. Tell me more about his style, how he plays.
BC: Parker, like me, is like a football nerd. He eats, breathes, and sleeps football. So we can have a conversation about defenses. He understands [coverage schemes] and I don’t have to teach him any of those things.
So his style is smarts. That also kind of slows us down a little bit because he likes to go to the line and survey the defense. Parker is a big-armed kid. You wouldn’t expect that because he’s so little, but he definitely has one of the biggest arms I’ve ever coached.
He’s so quick to release and just understands defenses, so the ball’s out on time. He’s very athletic. He can run. But I don’t know how much I’m going to let him run, just because we need to keep him healthy. He can do damage with his arm and he has [so many] skilled guys [to go to] he doesn’t need to run as much.
RS: What kind of depth do you have at those skill positions?
BC: With Collin going down you lose a little bit of depth, but I’m comfortable two-deep across the board. We have two running backs who are phenomenal – I think the best two-headed monster we’ll see at San Juan.
Quarterback is probably the one place we don’t have a ton. We have a sophomore who’s still learning and then Jerzy who’s played there the last two years.
RS: I know they want back-to-back championships. I know they trust the system. Is there a belief from these boys?
BC: Oh yeah. They’ve fully bought in to the offensive and defensive system. Now I can finally say “guys, I know what I’m talking about” even if I don’t because now we have a state championship under our belt.
There’s full trust between them and me. System-wise I think we’re fine. Now it’s just going to come down to execution.
RS: For game one, tell me about what Layton Christian is going to bring.
BC: Size. This will be the biggest team I think San Juan has ever hosted. I hear people all the time say they’re just a 1A school, and they have struggled for the last decade until last year.
They got a new coach [Ray Stowers] who was an assistant at the University of Utah for a long time. He brought with him some guys. [Former NFL Pro Bowler] Luther Ellis’s two boys, who are both three-star recruits, have just moved to Layton Christian.
They have a defensive tackle who has twelve Division-I offers and he just committed to Oregon. Their running back has offers. He’s been on official visits to PAC-12 schools.
They have athleticism too. Their receivers are athletic. Tailbacks are vicious. This is a good team and we’re excited to see them.
I think their only weakness is that they’re a little undisciplined and they’re so big and don’t have a ton of depth that they can get tired. So we have to play fast and hopefully wear them out.
This is a good opportunity for our kids because I think we have guys who can go play at the next level. What better way than to go play against guys who will be playing on Saturday?
The San Juan Broncos kick off the 2022 season this Friday, August 13 at 7 p.m. on the San Juan High School football field. It promises to be an exciting start to the year.
Redrock 92.7 FM will broadcast every game of the Broncos’ season live along with live video coverage of regular season games on PictureItPalmer.com.
This season, play-by-play man Rhett Sifford will be joined by color commentator Art Adair. Pregame this Friday night begins at 6:30 p.m.