Meriden-Jefferson West senior Bryce Clements collected first team all-Big 7 at running back and led his team with 541 yards last year. The 6-foot-2, 195-pound Clements didn’t play defense as a junior for a squad that finished 5-4 and allowed just 17.6 points per contest.
Clements opened the fall as a defensive backup. However, 13th-year head coach Steve Johnson and his staff kept analyzing repetitions and practice film. They saw Clements grow and improve with his responsibilities and display aggressiveness. JW continued to give Clements more snaps. He eventually became a key hybrid starter and allowed the veteran Tiger defense to switch from a 4-4 to a 4-2-5.
Johnson had run the 4-2-5 back when he was an assistant for three seasons at Shawnee Heights. However, Johnson said didn’t have the “linebacker-type” player that could play near to the line of scrimmage on the outside and also drop back to cover a deep half.
“Kind of hard to find at the high school level,” Johnson said.
Clements has been the missing link for Jeff West. Known as the “Black Hats,” the Tigers have opened 4-0 and outscored teams 136-0. The Tigers are the lone Kansas squad that has yet to allow a point, according to Prep Power Index. Jefferson West is part of a large group of undefeated teams, including several big surprises, that are not ranked.
“He’s got great speed, so he can close on things pretty darn fast, and he’s had a great start to the year, too,” Johnson said.
Jefferson West, on the cusp of the Class 3A rankings, has the Saili family and experienced senior class, many of whom has played all four years. The Tigers had previously improved from 1-8 to 2-7 to 4-5.
Jeff West returned eight offensive and nine defensive starters, though has had several nice seasons from players in new positions. The Tigers have forced 16 turnovers and stand at plus-15 in turnover margin.
Last year, Jeff West forced just 12 turnovers and was plus-1 in turnover margin. As well, JW returned four assistant coaches: Dan Hypse, Jake Farrant, Doug Sidener and Chris Powers. Farrant is the founder and president of Kansas Turf.
Senior lineman Kauli Saili (5-10, 285) and his brother, Pene, a junior linebacker and versatile offensive player at 6-1, 230, have both earned first team all-state honors in their career. This fall, Pene paces with a team-best 31 tackles and eight sacks. Kauli has 22 stops with nine sacks.
Their brother, Danny, is a sophomore at 6-3, 320, and also starts on the offensive line. Kauli has more than 275 career tackles, and Pene has eclipsed 180.
In ’17, Kauli finished with 93 tackles. Last season, Pene had 92. The totals were the most by a JW defensive lineman since ’88. Additionally, sophomore Spencer Saili, a first cousin, is 6-3, 320. He moved to Jefferson West at the end of July and starts on the defensive line.
“There’s some kids that kind of just have a knack to be explosive when they hit it and drive,” Johnson said. “It’s a whole different impact on kids. Kauli the oldest, has tremendous feet, he has a great motor. He doesn’t stop.
“That’s a hard thing to teach kids, just to have that kind of drive,” he added. “Hopefully we will get more kids kind of that direction. Pene does it some, and of course Danny has some tremendous ability himself. He just has got to learn to play with that intensity on every snap.”
The family has nine children and moved from Nevada. They had played travel football to other states and have a lot of experience. Johnson said they remain raw physically.
“Made them one-dimensional, and then they try to throw it,” Johnson said. “Those guys are so good, quick, and they’ve got great size. They create matchup problems for you.”
This fall, Pene and senior Joel Scott – last year’s leading tackler with 94 stops – are the two linebackers. Scott missed last week with a pulled back muscle but is expected to play Friday.
“Joel is fun to watch, because he is another one of those kids that has a tremendous motor and plays so hard to the ball well,” Johnson said.
Kauli, Pene, Clements, Scott, senior defensive end Henry Frahm and senior wide receiver/defensive back Joe Anderson, senior quarterback Quinn Neuenswander are all at least three year starters on at least one side of the ball.
“We knew they were athletic and talented,” Johnson said. “You hoped that maybe they don’t get shell shocked, because you have to throw them in too early, but they are tough kids. They’ve got a little taste of success here and there through that transition of those years. Now things are starting to come together for them. They have been great leaders for us for our young kids, so it’s been good.”
On Friday, Jefferson West plays at Topeka Hayden in a marquee District 3 contest. Hayden is 4-0 and ranked third in Class 3A. West is 0-10 all-time versus Hayden, according to Kansas Football History and Hayden archives. Johnson said the team knows need to “compete and beat teams like Hayden” if JW wants to reach its season goals.
“Their aggressiveness,” Johnson said of Hayden. “They do such a good job of getting off the ball on both sides of the ball and getting after you. You can tell they obviously play with a tremendous amount of confidence. They have great team speed. That kind of jumps out at me when I see them on film is how well they get to the football and get to the point of attack on both sides of the ball.”
Jefferson West opened with a 7-0 victory against Holton, then won at Royal Valley 40-0, defeated Hiawatha 55-0, and won at Bishop Ward, 34-0. Clements has a pick-six and Pene recorded a fumble recovery touchdown.
Last year, Jefferson West opened 4-0 against the same slate and permitted just 33 points, but went 1-4 down the stretch. That started with a 30-7 loss to Hayden.
“We understand that with Hayden and Perry(-Lecompton) and Santa Fe Trail, we know that the road continues to get tougher on us,” Johnson said. “And so we just want to keep getting better each week.”
Offensively, Neuenswander took over for Cade Ross at quarterback. Ross had started his freshman and sophomore seasons and set a bevy of school passing records. His father is former Lindenwood (Mo.) University coach Patrick Ross and the family moved to Florida.
Neuenswander is a former all-state receiver and earned first team all-league at receiver and punter in ’18. He passed for 543 yards when Ross suffered injury last year. This season, Neuenswander leads with 45 carries for 383 yards and seven scores. Clements has delivered 47 rushes for 312 yards and four scores. Anderson leads with eight catches for 109 yards.
Neuenswander is a dual threat and allowed Jefferson West to run more frequently. The offensive line features Pene at right tackle, Danny at guard, senior Caden Young at center, Scott at left guard and Kauli at left tackle. Kauli had previously played center. Star senior lineman Gavin Schwinn, also a multiple-year starter, is out for the year with injury.
JW has passed 35 times, none bigger than a 41-yard touchdown pass from Neuenswander to Pene with 14 seconds left to beat Holton.
“We might not be as prolific in the pass game as we were, but we are efficient at it, but we are definitely much improved in the run game,” Johnson said.
Earlier in the game, JW ran the same play, but Neuenswander overthrew Pene. The Tigers figured run-heavy Holton would have the advantage in overtime since possessions start at the 10-yard line.
“We took a shot at it, tried to end the game while we could,” Johnson said.
Defensively, Kauli, Spencer Saili, Frahm and junior Brayden Abrams start on the line. Abrams (5-11, 190) moved up from cornerback from defensive end. Jefferson West had a starting end graduate, and Johnson believed the team had “enough secondary guys.”
“He had to make a big change from the secondary,” Johnson said. “…He’s such a good speed rusher for us. Causes problems up front, causes havoc. Great motor. He’s probably makes more plays if you go away from him, because he doesn’t quit. He’s just relentless.”
Junior cornerback Carson Brading is a first-year starter, whom Johnson labeled “a nice surprise.” Brading was not a starter at the beginning of the year. Anderson, the team’s leading receiver, is a cornerback. Senior Eli Uhler is a first-year starter at free safety, with Clements at strong safety.
The team has not discussed the shutout streak, but instead has focused on yards and first downs. Johnson believes the defensive unit has a better understanding of down-and-distance situations. JW limited Holton to 46 plays for 186 yards, all rushing. Hiawatha and Bishop Ward had just two first downs.
“We’ve found some kids defensively that a year ago that weren’t ready, and they are doing a better job,” Johnson said.
Several notable surprise 4-0 squads:
Lawrence – Lawrence, up to third in the Class 6A rankings, has made a big improvement from a 1-8 season in ’18. The Lions get a big matchup this week against undefeated Shawnee Mission Northwest. Lawrence has already scored 40 more points than last year.
Shawnee Mission Northwest – SM Northwest, led by coach Bo Black and his son, quarterback Ty Black, has opened 4-0 in ’18 after a 3-1 start in ’17. SMNW scored 97 points in the first month in ’18, and has 188 points this year, Class 6A’s leading offense, according to Prep Power Index. Black leads the state with 1,210 yards.
Dodge City – A new-look three-front defense, quarterback Beau Palmer and heroics the last two weeks from kicker Jose Valverde has helped Dodge City open 4-0. The Red Demons has permitted just 63 points. Through the first month last year, DC is 2-2 and allowed 126 points. Foster has completed 35 of 63 passes for 701 yards with six touchdowns against two interceptions, all leading or tied for the best marks in the WAC, according to league statistician Dustin Armbruster. Six players have between 30 and 36 tackles, led by nose guard Santonio Turner.
Maize South – One of five undefeated teams in the class and the other one not ranked, Maize South was expected to have a big turnaround after an 0-3 start last year. Maize South is now 10-1 in its last 11 contests. The Mavericks have a huge home game versus 4-0 Andover Central this week. Maize South has outscored teams, 114-65. All of the wins have come by 18 points or fewer and two by eight points or less. Through four games last year, the Mavericks had 61 points. Junior quarterback Colin Shields, running back Mason Edwards, linemen Cody Fayette and Zach Saville and defensive back Trevion Mitchell lead the team.
Andover Central – Andover Central has opened 4-0 with a collective margin of 123-44. The Jaguars have moved to fourth in the rankings. Shomari Parnell has thrown for 977 yards.
Tonganoxie – Tonganoxie has delivered a 4-0 mark with a 174-63 total margin and bumped into the rankings for the first time this week at No. 5. Junior Blake Poje has completed 44 of 71 passes for 725 yards with five touchdowns against three interceptions. Senior Cooper Cunningham has 96 carries for 905 yards and seven scores.
Columbus – Class 3A remains very deep with 13 undefeated teams, including many unranked squads, such as Prairie View, Colby, Wichita Collegiate, Frontenac. However, no one has surprised like Columbus, which was 1-8 last year – including a 0-4 start. Columbus won 21-7 at Caney Valley for another quality win last week.
Belle Plaine – Perhaps no class has had more upheaval than 2A. Belle Plaine opened the year with three straight shutouts. Quarterback Luke Baker, running back Eli Wiseman and Austin Hilton have been key. First-year coach Colton Koenigs, a former Andover Central quarterback, is leads BP at Neodesha.
Southeast-Cherokee – SE-Cherokee is 4-0, believed to be the first 4-0 start since 1967. Coach Jerrad Hansen is 8-5 in his last 13 contests. SE ended a 28-game losing streak in Week 1 of the ’18 season. The Lancers have posted back-to-back shutouts and get Jayhawk-Linn at home this week.
Ellsworth – Third-year coach Josh Homolka finished 6-3 in his first season and then dropped to 2-7 last year. The main difference came in three close losses in the first month to Russell, Sacred Heart and Minneapolis. This year, the Bearcats defeated all three teams with a 44-22 victory against Russell, 27-20 at Republic County, 38-13 versus Sacred Heart and 21-12 at Minneapolis. Ellsworth plays host to No. 1 Hoisington at home this week followed by tough matchups at Phillipsburg and versus Norton. Senior quarterback Morgan Kelly has more than 600 yards of total offense.
Jefferson North – Neither Jefferson County North, Lyndon or La Crosse are ranked in 1A – and all three have enjoyed big turnarounds from last year. JCN went 2-7 in ’18, the first losing season in coach Jeff Schneider’s four years. The Chargers have outscored teams, 196-18. JCN gets a solid test at KC Christ Prep, the reigning national home school champions. Christ Prep played Olpe (No. 2 1A) close two weeks ago. The game is at Blue Valley.
Lyndon – Lyndon has a rare down season with a 3-6 year in ’18, but has bounced back with a 4-0 mark from first-year coach Scott Jones. The Tigers opened 2-3 last year. Lyndon gets a road game versus Northern Heights (4-0) in a key matchup.
Northern Heights – Northern Heights was 5-13 the last two years and has its best start in at least 20 seasons, according to Kansas Football History.
La Crosse – La Crosse was 3-6 in ’18 and has opened 4-0 in the Leopards’ last season in the 11-man ranks. Senior quarterback Hunter Morgan has completed 36 of 67 passes for 740 yards with five touchdowns against three interceptions. Sophomore Colby Stull has 57 carries for 517 yards and 10 scores. Senior Michael Showalter has 38 tackles, nine for loss.
Eight-Man, Division I
Pratt-Skyline – One of Kansas’ biggest surprises, Skyline is one of nine teams unbeaten in Division I. The T-Birds have already exceeded last year’s win total from a 3-6 season and have a key District 5 home matchup against Little River (3-1) on Friday.
Moscow – The Wildcats are in their second year of six-man football. Moscow has opened with wins at Cunningham (58-6), versus Golden Plains (45-33), at Weskan (30-27) and versus Deerfield (39-13). Moscow is at Ashland (3-1) in a key six-man contest this week. Moscow lost 46-43 to Ashland last year.