With three new head coaches among five teams, this ain't your grandfather's Nuclear Conference.
Neither is it your fathers, or even yours.
This Nuclear Conference had a 60-percent head coaching turnover following the 2018 season — which means the Nuke is a wild, unpredictable blender of random unknowns.
Well, maybe not so much.
All three of the new coaches expect to do a number of the same things popularized by their predecessors, and all three have the wisdom to trust in the experience of their assistant coaches.
"We have three brand new coaches, and it looks like me and (North Fremont's) Ben (Lenz) are the only ones coming back," Ririe coach Jim Newton said. "All I know right now is that West Jefferson is out of that (Double Wing), and my kids are pretty happy about that."
For his part, Lenz said the Nuke is always anyone's conference to win, but with the bulk of his line returning from an 11-1 season and state title game appearance, several of the other coaches point to the Huskies as the team to beat.
"We will probably see a lot of what we are used to from Firth, and Salmon is kind of where we were at four or five years ago," Newton said. "But Ben is coaching at a different level."
Coach Ty Minto at West Jefferson has 38 players out this fall in his first season, and notes his team is eager to apply their new schemes to the Nuke teams — once jamboree and preseason game film becomes available.
Salmon rookie coach Tyrell Penner, at the tender age of 25, seconds the motion.
"With all the new coaches and everything, we dont know what to expect," he said. "But I think there should be some nail-biter, slugfest kinds of games."
Firth's new man Jordan Bartlett echoes Penner's sentiments for the most part, noting that all he and his coaching staff can do is recon work.
"Things are up in the air, and were trying to scout out teams as best we can," he said. "We are trying to do our due diligence and make sure were prepared."
Health is always the X-factor in small-school football, and perhaps no one knows that better than coach Lenz whose team dodged the injury bullet for the most part in 2018.
"At the 2A level you are depending on kids staying healthy," Lenz said. "And if we can keep our kids getting better and stay healthy like last year, we'll be right in that mix."
Of the three new coaches in the Nuclear Conference, none has bigger shoes to fill than Firth's Jordan Bartlett.
Bartlett, a Firth grad who served as the Cougars' defensive coordinator in 2018, takes over for long-time front man Keith Drake who coached the black and blue for 24 seasons collectively.
Bartlett takes over a team with more returning starters than not, with six coming back on offense and seven more on defense.
Perhaps more importantly, Bartlett says, is the return of most of the 2018 coaching staff, including offensive coordinator Mo Lopez.
"I am really able to lean on my coaching staff, and rely on them," Bartlett said. "We're going to continue to do some of the same things we have in years past."
Bartlett will also lean on linemen Jaime Ortiz and Josh Jolley on both sides of the ball, and expects big things from Jolley in his senior season.
"He will be one of our biggest impact players, and we leave him out there as much as we can," Bartlett said. "He's a big, nimble guy who can blow open holes, plug up the run, and get to the quarterback."
On the subject of the latter, Jace Ericskon will line up behind center for the Cougars this season -- and unlike most 2A QBs, Erickson will play only offense.
Also expected to have significant skill position roles this season are seniors Canon Carpenter and Teague Shook, as well as Stockton Giles, Peyton Blackner and Kimball Williams.
While Bartlett will lean on coach Lopez to keep teams off balance with variations on Firth's beat down offense, defensively Bartlett hopes his Cougars will be wholly unpredictable.
We will run a 5-3, 4-4 and a nickel, and we're not going to throw out routine blitz packages," he said. "Fans of Firth football can expect to see a crisp offense, a grinding defense, and a team that has pride in themselves and this community."
Coach: Jordan Bartlett, 1st season
Last year: 3-5, lost in 2A state opener
Returning starters: Offense 6, Defense 7
Impact players: Josh Jolley, Sr., OL/DL; Canon Carpenter Sr., RB/LB; Teague Shook, SR., WR/S; Kimball Williams, SR., RB/CB.
Aug. 30 at West Side, 7 p.m.
Sept. 6 vs. Soda Springs, 7 p.m
Sept. 13 at Snake River, 7 p.m.
Sept. 20 vs. South Fremont, 7 p.m.
Sept. 27 vs. Ririe, 7 p.m.
Oct. 4 at Salmon, 7 p.m.
Oct. 18 at North Fremont, 7 p.m.
Oct. 25 vs. West Jefferson, 7 p.m.
NORTH FREMONT HUSKIES
The strength of the 2018 North Fremont Huskies offense was the line.
Just ask anyone who ran behind them.
Or anyone who tried to stop them, for that matter.
Employing a Power-I offense in which passing was a five-percent afterthought, the Huskies slapped around opposing defenses to the tune of 47 points per game.
On the downside, most of those ballcarriers are gone.
On the upside, four of six offensive linemen from the 11-1 Huskies are back for another push.
"With the seniors up front and Riggen (Cordingley) behind them, we are hoping to do some of the same things," eighth-year North Fremont head coach Ben Lenz said. "We are going into this season confident, and we're motivated to get another shot."
Cordingley will be one of two split backs in Lenz's offense, running behind a line that returns Hayeden Hood, Jordan Hess, Paul Wynn, Tyler Schuldberg, as well as senior Kiefer Shaw.
As understudies on the line are Alex Garcia, Nick Briggs and Karson Dye.
Gone are home run hitters Blake Oberhansley (running back) and Garrett Hawkes (quarterback), but in classic North Fremont fashion, there's always another slugger ready to take their hacks.
Junior Luke Hill slides from running back to quarterback, and competing for time in the North Fremont backfield are players whose jerseys read Lenz, Maupin, Nelson, Neilson, and Vega.
"We lost a ton of seniors, but sustained our numbers with 33 out right now," coach Lenz said. "We are trying right now to find just the right mix in the backfield, and I say the more the merrier."
The Huskies will run a base 5-3 defense to help combat the run-first Nuclear Conference, but that defense is subject to change depending on who is on the Friday night schedule.
Regardless of who comes to call, they will be lining up against a hungry North Fremont team that finished one win away from a 2A state title.
"We just have the same expectations this season, especially having gotten that far and getting a taste of that," coach Lenz said.
NORTH FREMONT HUSKIES
Coach: Ben Lenz, 8th season
Last year: 11-1 record, lost in 2A state championship game
Returning starters: Offense 5, Defense 5
Impact players: Riggen Cordingley, Sr., RB; Luke Hill, Jr., QB; Hayeden Hood, Sr., OL/DL; Jordan Hess, Sr., OL/DL; Paul Wynn, Sr., OL/DL; Tyler Schuldberg, Sr., OL/DL, Kiefer Shaw, Sr., OL/DL
Aug. 30 at Filer, 7 p.m.
Sept. 6 at Teton, 7 p.m.
Sept. 13 vs. Aberdeen, 7 p.m.
Sept. 20 at Soda Springs, 7 p.m.
Sept. 27 vs. Salmon, 7 p.m.
Oct. 11 at West Jefferson, 7 p.m.
Oct. 18 vs. Firth, 7 p.m.
Oct. 25 at Ririe, 7 p.m.
There ain't no party like a Ririe football party.
At least it looks like a party out on the practice field in the Jefferson County panhandle these days.
Stop by practice at Ririe High School some afternoon and you are going to see more boys in blue and gold than you have ever seen during head coach Jim Newton's five-year tenure.
"We have 49 out this year, which is by far more than I've ever had out before," Newton said. "Because of that, our practices have been high-tempo, and we can move through groups and keep people fresh and not have to beat each other up too much."
With four starters back on offense and six more on defense, Netwon's Bulldogs are about at the Nuclear Conference average in terms of returning lettermen.
The difference, Newton says, is in roster depth.
"As far as play install, we are light years ahead of where we used to be because of personnel," he said. "We can talk about a play and put it in there, and be running it just like that."
Among the returning talents are running back Gabe Sommers and receiver Gage Sperry, as well as defensive standouts Dan Schwendiman and Tory Criddle.
Back to anchor the line on both sides of the ball are Harmon Brown and Tyson Thacker.
Also back for this season is the memory of the 4-5 season of 2018, the first round state playoff exit at the hands of eventual state champion Declo, and every one of those things that stick in the collective craw of every returning Ririe Bulldog.
"Overall I think we are going to try to not be as predictable as we were," Newton said. "We spent some long hours in the film room looking at where we were getting beat, and all pointed to the good teams knew what we were going to do.
"I think you're going to see a fast, up-tempo game with good solid defense," he said "We're going to try to get into a rhythm on offense, and force people out of their comfort zone on defense."
Coach: Jim Newton, 5th season
Last year: 4-5 record, lost in first round of the playoffs
Returning starters: Offense 4, Defense 6
Impact players: Gabe Sommers, Jr., RB; Gage Sperry, Jr., WR; Harmon Brown, Sr., OL/DL; Tyson Thacker, Sr. OL/DL; Dan Schwendimann, Jr., Tory Criddle, QB/CB.
Aug. 31 vs. Star Valley JV, 7 p.m.
Sept. 6 at Malad, 7 p.m.
Sept. 13 vs. Soda Springs, 7 p.m.
Sept. 20 at West Side, 7 p.m.
Sept. 27 at Firth, 7 p.m.
Oct. 4 vs. West Jefferson, 7 p.m.
Oct. 11 at Salmon, 7 p.m.
Oct. 25 vs. North Fremont, 7 p.m.
It was November 2, 2012, when Tyrell Penner took off his black Salmon football helmet for the final time.
Penner and his teammates had just lost a 20-14 contest at Marsing in the state semifinals, marking an end to Penner's playing days in Lemhi County.
Less than seven years after he put down that helmet, Penner has picked up the clipboard as the coach of his beloved Salmon High School Savages.
"I never thought I would be the head coach really, because I'm still kinda young," Penner said. "But I was an assistant for two years, and maybe because I am young, I feel like the guys maybe relate to me."
Penner takes over a team that opened with a win, and lost out the rest of the way — closing the season on a six game losing stretch where they scored a total of 20 points.
Penner knows all about it. He was right there on the sidelines as an assistant for the whole show.
"We had a couple of ACL tears and some concussions, and the biggest thing is that all those freshmen and sophomores who were playing varsity the past couple years are now juniors and seniors," Penner said.
Perhaps most notably in Penner's eyes are the two seniors on both sides of the line, Michael Bowen and Kelton Dockery.
A former high school and collegiate (Montana Western) lineman himself, Penner knows the team's overall success will hinge on trench play.
Two other notable senior players returning at the skill positions are Wylie Keller and Brax Kauffmann. Keller will be used at the ends of the line on both sides of the ball, and Kauffman is expected to be both taking snaps and roaming here and there as the situation dictates.
What those situations might be, Penner was keeping that close to the vest.
"We're coming up with some new schemes and we're going to try to spread the field," he said. "We have some real playmakers, and the other coaches are really dialed in and know what they're doing, which makes it easy on me.
"I'm super excited. It's going to be a good year."
Coach: Tyrell Penner, 1st season
Last year: 1-6 record, no playoffs
Returning starters: Offense 10, Defense 8
Impact players: Michael Bowen, Sr,. OL/DL; Kelton Dockery, Sr., OL/DL; Wylie Keller, Sr., TE/DE; Brax Kauffman, Sr., QB/RB
Aug. 30 at Anaconda (Mont.), 7 p.m.
Sept. 6 vs. Florence (Mont.), 7 p.m.
Sept. 20 vs. Teton, 7 p.m.
Sept. 27 at North Fremont, 7 p.m.
Oct. 4 vs. Firth, 7 p.m.
Oct. 11 vs. Ririe, 7 p.m.
Oct. 18 at West Jefferson, 7 p.m.
WEST JEFFERSON PANTHERS
It's tough to say just how good the West Jefferson Panthers of 2018 really were.
They beat down everyone without a "Fremont" in their name, finishing 7-3 with one loss to 3A state qualifier South Fremont, and two losses to 2A state runner up North Fremont.
But all that is history, as is the five-year tenure of 2018 coach Jason Taylor.
One of three new head coaching faces in the Nuclear Conference, coach Ty Minto takes the reins of a program in Terreton that made the playoffs in five straight seasons under Taylor.
"This team has made good use of the double-tight (offense), and that kind of clock control is something we want to utilize," Minto said. "I grew up on a Wing-T and our offense will be based on that, but we may still use the double-tight in some situations."
Those situations will likely be dictated by the speed of maturation of the West Jefferson line, which lost all but one of its starters to graduation.
Still, with 38 players out from a school with just over 200 total students, coach Minto is confident he can rebuild those trenches.
"We have a lot of raw talent, and want to build on that to get them some needed experience," Minto said. "There are a lot of guys out here who can make plays, and we want to put them in a position to do that."
Among the horses in Minto's backfield stable are seniors Brandon Morton, Kade Robinson and Jared Roundy, as well as juniors Jamareon Kimbro and Jaden Burtenshaw -- among others.
Minto hopes to simplify his defense into a modified 4-4 designed to help players spend more time doing and less time thinking.
"It's a very simple 4-4 that makes the reads very simple and lets them be athletes," Minto said. "It gives them a simple rule and one job to do, and lets them do their thing."
WEST JEFFERSON PANTHERS
Coach: Ty Minto, 1st season
Last year: 7-3, lost in state quarterfinals
Returning starters: Offense 2, Defense 3
Impact players: Brandon Morton, Kade Robinson, Jared Roundy, Jamareon Kimbro, Jaden Burtenshaw
Aug. 31 at Melba, 3 p.m.
Sept. 6 vs. South Fremont, 7 p.m.
Sept. 13 vs. Teton, 7 p.m.
Sept. 20 at Malad, 7 pm.
Oct. 4 at Ririe, 7 p.m.
Oct. 11 vs. North Fremont, 7 p.m.
Oct. 18 vs. Salmon, 7 p.m.
Oct. 25 at Firth, 7 p.m.