The comparisons are going to be inevitable.
This fall, when Flathead High School’s 5-foot-9 quarterback snares the shotgun snap, bounces in the pocket and surveys his options, seasoned observers of Montana prep sports might experience a twinge of déjà vu, particularly if they notice the man barking instructions from the sidelines. In his first four seasons at Flathead, quarterback-turned-coach Kyle Samson had a trio of statuesque signal-caller prototypes to mentor, but this year he won’t be lifting his gaze to catch his quarterback in the eyes.
OK, well maybe he’ll have to look up a little bit.
“Yeah, I’m definitely an inch taller than (Samson),” Jaden MacNeil deadpanned.
The Braves’ new quarterback, MacNeil probably won’t remind fans of Peyton Manning in the pocket, but he just might conjure memories of Samson, a superb athlete with a rocket-launcher arm who played quarterback at MSU-Northern after a stupendous high school career.
MacNeil, an all-state safety the last two seasons and the state runner-up at 132 pounds on the wrestling mat, has the athlete part more than covered, and his arm, his coach says, has “exceeded expectations.” Now all that’s left to make the comparison whole is to finish the season the same way his coach did as a senior at Helena Capital in 2002 — with a state championship. And, fairly or not, if MacNeil can successfully switch sides of the ball and be even a shadow of the player his coach once was, the Braves have a puncher’s chance to end 2018 with some new hardware in the trophy case.
Taylor Morton quarterbacked the Braves to a 6-4 record in 2017, helping Flathead finish fourth in Class AA in the regular season and earn a home playoff game for the first time in Samson’s tenure. It was the next step on Flathead’s slow but steady football renewal, one that began when Samson replaced Russell McCarvel (23-50 in seven years) in 2014.
As the 2017 season wore on, Samson and his coaches knew that they had a roster capable of challenging the state’s best teams and, better still, that they had a bevy of young players gaining valuable experience before returning in 2018. But Morton would not be among them, and the rest of the depth chart at the quarterback position was barren. So the coaches kept an eye out for Morton’s eventual replacement as 2017 wore on, and the conversation accelerated quickly after Capital bounced Flathead in the first round of the state playoffs.
Two primary candidates for the job emerged — all-state wide receiver Anthony Jones and MacNeil, who served as Flathead’s change-of-pace wildcat quarterback in 2017 along with his responsibilities on defense. MacNeil and Jones are the Braves’ best two pure athletes, and as coaches weighed the decision they considered both MacNeil’s familiarity, albeit limited, with commanding the offense in the wildcat and the value of keeping Jones at wide receiver where he could provide MacNeil a reliable, tough-to-cover target. They made their decision and told the team not long after the playoff loss last winter.
“We knew we were losing a great leader at the quarterback spot,” Samson said. “(MacNeil)’s a great football player, he can play seven or eight different positions on the field … (but) the number one thing was the leadership.”
Since finding out about the position switch, MacNeil has been busy trying to turn himself from a great athlete who happens to play quarterback into a quarterback who happens to be a great athlete.
“It’s a big learning experience,” MacNeil said. “Instead of just knowing my position back at safety, I’ve got to know what everyone’s doing at all times to make sure the play goes smooth and just in case anyone has any questions for me.”
To help speed up his learning, MacNeil has spent countless hours with Samson and used his spring and summer to watch film, perfect his footwork and throw passes with a handful of experienced returning wide receivers, including the senior trio of Jones, Kaden Wills and Logan Siblerud.
“Luckily I have a lot of committed guys,” MacNeil said. “So on our off days I was just like, ‘Hey, you guys want to hang out and come throw the football a little bit?’ And they were always there. I could always count on them.”
Jones exploded onto the scene in his first varsity season in 2017, catching 47 passes for 968 yards (more than 20 yards per catch) and 10 touchdowns. He is a supremely gifted athlete who plays basketball for the Braves and is a star baseball player for the Kalispell Lakers, and if he decides to pursue football at the next level he will likely elicit offers from Division I programs. And with the roster shuffling this year, Jones will actually also take MacNeil’s starting spot at safety, keeping one of Flathead’s best players on the field for nearly every play.
“He’s a big kid and he’s got great ball skills, some of the best hands that I’ve coached at any level,” Samson said of Jones. “He works extremely hard in practice and he’s very humble, but he’s very gifted and very talented.”
Throwing the ball to Jones isn’t the only way the Braves plan to move the ball down the field, either. Flathead’s offense will look very different from recent seasons, with MacNeil expected to stretch the defense laterally and incorporate new wrinkles in the running game, something that will be further buoyed by the return of another all-state talent, running back Blake Counts. As a junior, Counts ran for more than 1,200 yards, and the 205-pound bruiser enters this season with added quickness, something that should serve the Braves well, particularly early in the season as MacNeil is still learning the nuances of the passing game.
“I expect them to call me whenever I’m needed and I’ll be ready,” Counts said. “If the coaches need me to run the ball 40 times a game I’ll do it, if they need me 15 times I’ll do it. I don’t care.”
“I feel a lot of pressure but (my teammates) relieve a lot of pressure because I know if I give it to Blake Counts he’s going to run it down their throat and if I throw it up to (Jones) he’s going to come down with it every time,” MacNeil said.
The Braves roll into their season opener — Friday, Aug. 24 at 7 p.m. on the road in Butte — a confident bunch, something they burnished at the University of Idaho’s team camp in June. Flathead finished first out of 19 teams after five scrimmages at that camp, all with MacNeil playing quarterback.
But now the scrimmages are over and the games will count, beginning at hostile Naranche Stadium against a game Bulldogs bunch.
“We’re definitely going to see how good we are in that first game,” MacNeil said. “Practice is a lot different, when you’re going against your own guys.”
“I don’t know if you can ever simulate (a game) in practice,” Samson said. “(MacNeil)’s going to keep getting better as the season goes on … The ins and outs of being a quarterback, a lot of times that just comes with getting games under his belt.”
By the time the end of regular season rolls around, 10 weeks from now, the Braves hope MacNeil will have seen plenty of game action and be ready to guide Flathead beyond the first round of the playoffs, something they have not done since 2006. And, once they do that, maybe even take it one step further.
“We can do wonders,” Jones said. “It’s just as far as our bodies and minds can take us, honestly, and we can go far. We’re going to go far; I have a really good feeling about this year and this team.”