Thunder Ridge vs Blackfoot

Blackfoot’s Austin Ramirez runs the ball during the Broncos’ road contest against Thunder Ridge last season.

Jerrod Ackley may acknowledge the expectations. He doesn’t feel the pressure.

“There’s no one that puts more pressure on me than me, and that’s just the nature of being a coach and trying to be a high-level coach,” said Ackley, who is entering his second season as Blackfoot’s head man. “So in terms of feeling pressure from the outside, not really.”

Ackley’s first season at Blackfoot in 2020 went just about as well as first seasons can: 7-2 overall with a berth in the 4A state quarterfinals. The Broncos made mincemeat of — most of — the conference, steamrolling opponents with a punishing ground attack and a stout defense.

Ahead of Blackfoot’s season-opener Friday night at home against Thunder Ridge, which is set for a 7 p.m. kickoff, the Broncos aren’t setting out to prove anything. They just want to build on their new skipper’s early success.

“That’s not to say people don’t have whatever expectations that they have — and rightfully so,” Ackley said. “But I have been a part of some really big football programs and really big games and situations. Coached in a Florida state championship game. Coached in a Texas state championship game. I have enough experience that I don’t really feel pressure from the outside.”

What makes the matchup so interesting is that Thunder Ridge finds itself on a similarly promising trajectory. In the Titans’ first year as a program, in 2018, they went winless. A year later, they notched their first win. Last season, they went 5-5 and made the 5A state playoffs.

It begs the question: What’s the next step for the program? Some might argue a playoff win. Titans coach Jeff Marshall says a victory on Friday night.

“We expect it to be tough,” Marshall said. “Their defense doesn’t give you anything easy, and their offense, they’re able to pound it or go to the air. They’re starting a dual threat there. Pretty sound football team.”

The good news for Thunder Ridge is that the club starts a dual-threat quarterback as well. Senior Tao Johnson, who missed part of last season with an injury, is back for the Titans. Back in May, he earned a 5A state title in the 100-meter dash, garnering attention from football and track coaches alike for his speed and athleticism.

Whether he’ll be able to put it to use on Friday against Blackfoot remains to be seen. For their parts, the Broncos know what they’re up against, in large part because Ackley went to college with Johnson’s father.

“He’s worked really hard his whole life,” Ackley said of Johnson. “We know he’s a special athlete.”

The other special athlete Ackley and the Broncos are paying close attention to is Thunder Ridge defensive end Paul Fitzgerald, a Utah State commit who figures to pose a kind of edge rush that could change Friday’s game. The Broncos saw Fitzgerald last season, which should help their case.

“He brings a real dynamic to the game,” Ackley said, “with his size and his ability.”

Ackley is hoping he’ll be able to say the same about his players. Blackfoot is trying to absorb the losses of Teegan Thomas, an all-state running back who racked up 1,800 yards as a junior and more than 1,200 as a senior, and quarterback Jace Grimmett, a key cog in the Broncos’ 2020 offense.

Now, Blackfoot will lean on guys like wide receiver Ja’Vonte King, quarterback Jaxon Grimmett and running back Austin Martinez, who collected some experience last season in the second half of Blackfoot’s playoff win over Vallivue, when Thomas had gone down with an injury.

Those new pieces may take some time to gel. The Broncos’ attitudes have already cemented.

“I constantly preach to my team and my coaching staff that everything is about daily growth, and that’s the same thing for me,” Ackley said. “Everything is about growth from one game to another. I worry about the things I can control, and the things I can’t control are distractions if I focus on them. So I wouldn’t say I feel any pressure any more or less than I would if we were 2-7 last year. We’re really just trying to move our team forward on a daily basis and not worry about the external expectations.”

Greg Woods is a sports reporter at the Post Register. Reach him 208-542-6772 and follow him on Twitter at GregWWoods.

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