ST. GEORGE – Desert Hills defensive end Jake Wagner looks mean on the football field. With war paint on his face and a chiseled body, he uses superb quickness and instinct to get to the quarterback.
But get him away from the football field and he looks more like a lawyer or doctor. With straight hair, parted on the side, and a neatly-trimmed mustache, Wagner could pull off a three-piece suit or a lab coat with ease. But opponents would be foolish to let his gentle looks and mild manners fool them.
“He’s always been a really tough, strong kid,” Desert Hills coach Carl Franke said. “It was one of my main focuses in the offseason to get him back out on the football field.”
Wagner, a senior, hadn’t played football for a couple of years, and is coming off a serious knee injury.
The last time I really played football was freshman year so it’s been kind of a slow start for me,” Wagner said. “But week by week, I feel like I’ve improved and am starting to really get better.”
The stats certainly back that up. Wagner had six sacks through the first nine games of the season, but has amassed 8.5 sacks the last three games, all playoff wins for the Thunder.
“I have a high motor, is what people say,” Wagner said. “They have me read the tackle for my assignment, but most of the time I’m just supposed to go after the quarterback.”
The senior is quick to point out that his defensive teammates have been amazing as well.
“Every one of these guys on this defense is a playmaker,” he said. “Against Dixie (in the semifinals), our coverage by the defensive backs was a lot better, which gave me more time to get to the quarterback.”
And get to the QB he did, with three sacks and a couple of hurries. Franke said Wagner’s rare combination of size and speed makes him ideal as a pass-rusher.
“We ask him to pressure the QB and contain the end and he does a great job,” Franke said. “He has great agility and balance and is able to contort his body and fend off the tackle or the back and keep a tight arc to the quarterback.”
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With Wagner and tough linebackers like Sil Bundy, Gabe Sewell and Tucker Cowdin, the Thunder defense has been phenomenal this season. Desert Hills has held opponents to 10.3 points a game. DH has two shutouts and has held opponents to 16 points or less in all but one game this season.
“We knew we’d be better this year because of the personnel we had coming back,” Franke said. “You can be a great coach, but you’re only as good as the players you have and we have some great players on defense.”
The Thunder will try to avenge one of their two losses this year when they take on Pine View in Friday’s 3AA state championship game, 6:30 p.m. at Rice Eccles Stadium
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