VANCOUVER — Take a listen to Seattle sports radio these days, and the ongoing dissection and analysis of what most ails the 0-2 Seahawks seems to be a 24/7 concern.
Yet if you’re able to tune out all of the noise, and focus on what’s really going on with a sputtering offence, so much of it boils down to an issue of trust between a veteran quarterback, a cache of wide receivers largely untested, and a new offensive coordinator.
No, Vancouver’s Notre Dame Jugglers aren’t going through the same kind of team identity crisis as our region’s most-followed NFL team.
Yet as its veteran head coach and resident quarterback whisperer answers a reporter’s questions about the rising fortunes of Will Clarke, the team’s talented senior pivot, Denis Kelly offers up a comparable that is very relatable.
“Will has improved quite a bit,” says Kelly who came to Notre Dame last season after spending 2016 as the offensive coordinator at St. Thomas More. “But it’s just been about getting to know each other and what the expectations are.
“Basically, what I can compare it to is what Russell Wilson is going through right now, with (new offensive coordinator Brian) Schottenheimer coming in after (former OC Darrell) Bevell,” continues Kelly, who after introducing his offence to Clarke and the rest of the unit last season, has begun to see a greater understanding of its concepts through the first three games of the season.
Notre Dame, after a 2-1 overall start to the season which included a deflating 35-0 loss to St. Thomas More and an uneven 26-21 conference-opening win at Seaquam, gets an identity-defining opportunity this Friday as it plays host to the AAA No. 4-ranked Mt. Douglas Rams of Victoria in a 2 p.m. kick off at Burnaby Lakes.
“A lot of it is about personalities,” continues Kelly, relating the importance he has always placed on an environment of pro-active communication. “Football is football, and the Xs and Os even out. But it’s about learning to trust the individual and getting comfortable in relating all of that onto the field as you lead the rest of the crew.”
As Clarke continues to digest the big picture, all of that is beginning to unfold.
“At the very start it was demanding,” admits Clarke, whose dual-threat abilities were clearly on display last week against Seaquam as he threw two scoring strikes and called his own number for another. “Coach Kelly wanted perfection. And it can be challenging because every week we are making adjustments based on the team we are playing. But I don’t feel like it’s a struggle because I know he watches the most film. I know that he knows.”
Case in point in the development of Clarke was his 62-yard scramble for a touchdown last week against Seaquam.
It was one of those plays where trust and instinct carried the day.
“There was good protection, but I could see that the corners were really tight and the linebackers were tight on the two seams on either side,” remembers Clarke. “As I dropped back, I didn’t feel comfortable, so I rolled to the left for an angle, and I saw a gap in the offensive line. I just took off and sprinted. There was no thinking involved at that point.”
It’s the kind of advice that Wilson could have used last Monday in Chicago after he hung around in the pocket a little too long and took five first-half sacks.
And within B.C. high school football’s own version of the NFL, it’s why the maturation of a player like Clarke has been so fun to follow.
Last season, as a Grade 11 starter, Clarke passed at a 62.3 per cent completion rate for 1,358 yards and 15 touchdowns versus five interceptions.
This year, that completion percentage has dipped slightly with the severity of the STM loss the main culprit.
Yet Clarke’s total game has matured.
Through three games, he has passed for 469 yards and six TDs versus three interceptions. But he has also rushed 20 times for 275 yards and one score. That’s a total of 248 combined passing and rushing yards per game.
And those 275 yards along the ground make him the second-highest rusher in AAA behind W.J. Mouat running back Nathan Hausermann.
“Will is able to turn a play where there is a covered receiver into a touchdown by his quickness and his elusive running ability,” notes Kelly who has relished the opportunity to have a second full season working with a starting quarterback, something he hasn’t had since his days at Mouat when he coached up pivot Cam Bedore in both 2009 and ’10. “That is something that gives you a whole new dimension. You know that a big play can happen at any time.”
And while Seattle will soldier on without the services of injured Doug Baldwin, it’s most dependable receiver, the Jugglers are on the verge of welcoming their most dynamic pass-catcher back into the fold.
With the graduation of both Dylan Rachel and Pauljeet Dhami, Jerrell Cummings came to fall camp as the Jugglers’ leading returning receiver.
However a collarbone injury in Notre Dame’s season-opening 48-20 win at South Umpqua (Ore.) has kept the 5-foot-10, 180-pounder out of the lineup the last two games.
“The good thing was that we had to find other targets,” says Kelly, whose team has just become all the deeper for their adversity.
With brings us back to the ‘T’ word, around which this story and the Jugglers’ 2018 season seems so neatly wrapped around.
“It changes a lot when Jerrell is out there,” says Clarke. “He is dynamic. I trust him with everything I have.”
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