ABBOTSFORD — Watching the breakthrough game of Chase Claypool’s young NFL career this past Sunday proved to be a prideful moment for John Barsby head football coach Rob Stevenson, despite the fact that back in 2015, his Bulldogs found themselves on the wrong end of a season-ending playoff loss fuelled by a performance many agree was the greatest of Claypool’s high school career.
The past few days have seemed like an ongoing celebration within the B.C. high school football community after Claypool, the former Abbotsford Panthers and Notre Dame Fighting Irish wide receiver, became the first NFL rookie to catch three touchdown passes and rush for another in a single game, leading the Steelers past the Philadelphia Eagles 38-29 en route to being named the AFC’s Offensive Player of the Week.
If you managed to watch Claypool during his dominant senior season at Abby, the genesis of what he’s now showing on Sundays was already starting to reveal itself back in that special 2015 campaign.
That has certainly revealed itself as the central theme this week as four opposition head coaches who faced Claypool and his Abbotsford Panthers over that 2015 campaign which ended with a loss in the Subway Bowl AA final so clearly recall.
And few opposition coaches can speak with the same level of accuracy regarding the level of versatility, game sense, athleticism and absolute domination that was part-and-parcel of the Grade 12-vintage Claypool than Barsby’s Stevenson, who carries with him an encyclopedic memory of his team’s 50-36 Subway Bowl quarterfinal loss that season, a game in which Claypool not only caught four touchdown passes, but rushed for two others as well.
“Heck, we were only two touchdowns worse than an NFL defence,” Stevenson said with a laugh in comparing the six majors his defence allowed almost five years ago versus the four surrendered by the Eagles over the weekend. “But seriously, Sunday’s NFL game looked a whole lot like when we played them back in the day. He was essentially doing the same things against NFL athletes, in the same dominant fashion, that he did over his high school career. What a treat it was for all of us to have been able to compete against him.”
Here are four of the more memorable games from Chase Claypool’s 2015 senior season, as seen through the eyes of Abbotsford’s opposition coaches. Catch the latest episode of the Varsity Letters podcast on Thursday for more from Abbotsford head coach Jay Fujimura.
THE 2015 SEASON REMEMBERED
SEPT. 18, 2015
ABBOTSFORD 39 at W.J. MOUAT 36
In my game story lede for The Province newspaper that day I wrote: “The Chase Claypool legend continues to grow.”
That’s because, in a narrow season-opening win over its crosstown rivals, one in which they trailed 36-17 heading into the fourth quarter, Claypool scored three unanswered touchdowns in the final frame to rally his team to the win, making the winning major possible after recovering an onside kick.
“The whole week of practice leading up to that game was about containing Chase Claypool, limiting the amount of big plays he would make, and to force others on that team to step up,” remembers Travis Bell, these days the president of the B.C. Secondary Schools Football Association but that season the Hawks’ first-year head coach who employed the likes of Dion Pellerin and Nelson Lokombo to try and get the job done.
“We did a pretty darned good job of that game plan until the last five minutes of the fourth quarter,” remembers Bell. “But Chase was able to make one big play after another and we could not respond. I remember saying after that game that it became the Chase Claypool Show and that he was a once-in-a-lifetime player. I’m not right too often but I think those comments are hard to argue seeing what he accomplished at Notre Dame and what he is doing with the Steelers in his rookie year.”
In a game which served as a testament to his prime-time abilities, Bell’s remembrances are spot on in that the vast majority of Claypool’s five catches for 119 yards, and 10 rushes for 142 yards came in the fourth quarter.
But he was just warming up.
OCT. 23, 2015
ABBOTSFORD 41 at ROBERT BATEMAN 14
Claypool caught five passes for 144 yards and three touchdowns in this late October clash with another crosstown rival in the Bateman Timberwolves.
Yet the touchdown he scored along the ground as part of a four carry, 100-yard day was among the most indelible of his high school career.
As I wrote that evening: “On one play, with (Abbotsford quarterback John) Madigan in the process of being sacked, Claypool came back to his QB, took the ball away from him, and ran 60 yards for a touchdown.”
“On another,” remembers Bateman head coach David Mills, “Abby was punting, and Chase was lined up (between the snapper and punter) as an up-back. He saw a running lane, so he decided to intercept the long snap, and ran the ball for a 40-yard gain.”
Contacted after the Steelers-Eagles game, it took Mills but a second to flash back to his team’s clash against Claypool.
“I actually think of that game in 2015 often,” said Mills. “I have seen Chase do things at Notre Dame and in the NFL that I saw him do against us.
“It was so frustrating because you could do everything right and he would still find a way to make a play. I remember us actually doing a decent job defensively in that game, with the exception of when Chase decided he was going to make a play.”
NOV. 21, 2015
ABBOTSFORD 50 at JOHN BARSBY 36
It was a performance for the ages.
Twelve catches for 351 yards and four touchdowns, seven carries for 44 yards and two more scores, as well as 17 tackles and a pick from his free safety spot.
“I tell everyone that was the most unbelievable single game performance I have ever seen in high school,” Panthers’ head coach Jay Fujimura said during a Wednesday taping of this week’s Varsity Letters podcast. “They were all over him. But that is where his hip injury started to ruminate. He was constantly hit and he just played with everything he had. Sometimes they had three guys covering him and hitting him and he would go up and still somehow make the catch, then not go down and run it in for a touchdown. After the game, I just looked at the other coaches, and their jaws just dropped at what we had all just witnessed.”
Barsby coach Stevenson’s remembrances of that game are encyclopedic to say the least.
“The dilemma we faced in terms of game-planning was that if we focused too heavily on Chase, the Abby offence would have a track meet against us,” he said of a deep and capable core of pass catchers and running back Richard Tshimpaka.
“What we decided to do was to play quarters instead of the Cover 3 we had hung our hat on all year,” he continued of flooding the field with a plethora of defensive back-types. “We also moved our best corner and safety over Chase all day. To disrupt their timing, we tried to bring some stunts and pressures in the hopes that they would not be able to develop their routes prior to the ball being released.”
The verdict some six Claypool touchdowns later?
“Well, as things turned out, we had no answer for Chase on the fade route,” said Stevenson. “We had him covered for sure, but he was catching balls that were 10-to-11 feet in the air. He timed his jumps perfectly and we just couldn’t get up in the stratosphere with him. As I recall, almost every catch he made was deep downfield in such circumstances.”
As well, just as Claypool opened his quartet of scoring majors this past Sunday off a deep red zone jet sweep, Fujimura was already taking advantage of the 6-foot-4 Claypool out of the backfield, leading to his two rushing scores that day.
“Defensively, it was a frustrating day,” summed Stevenson. “If I was to make an analogy, it was much like the Soviets must have felt when they encountered the Mach 3 SR 71 spy plane. They knew it was there, but it was just too high and too fast to do anything about. ’Twas a helpless feeling.”
DEC. 5. 2015
CARSON GRAHAM 53 ABBOTSFORD 34
The Panthers came out on the losing end in the B.C. Double-A Subway Bowl championship final at B.C. Place Stadium.
Yet despite his attempt to grab the brass ring in the final contest of his high school career, the grit Claypool showed despite a hip injury which limited him to about one quarter worth of playing time, stands as an important early reference point to the reverence he holds for both the game and his teammates.
Claypool caught six passes for 109 yards, including a 15-yard TD grab, but landed awkwardly with 26 seconds left in the opening frame.
Helped off the field, he sat the rest of the half, and was carrying his shoulder pads on the sideline to start the second quarter.
Yet as just another part of his fabled high school career, Claypool would put the pads back on, entering the game for a few plays in the second half, including throwing a 30-yard scoring strike to teammate Maasin Thompson.
Five years later, of course, Carson Graham head coach Brian Brady can’t forget the epic seven rushing touchdowns he got from quarterback Tyler Nylander in the B.C. final, but he will also never forget the intestinal fortitude of Claypool.
“Chase entered our game banged up from the previous game, but his speed and ball skills were on full display and it was absolutely amazing,” Brady said.
And like his fellow B.C. high school coaches have observed, it seems so clear now that over the course of that 2015 season, Claypool was leaving behind the most telling clues as to how a vast cache of skills and character traits would form the foundation of a career which so suddenly in 2020 seems assured of long-lasting NFL stardom.
“If you see the plays he has completed so far this season, they are eerily similar to what he did to us when we played,” adds Brady, “There are moments when you think the ball was out of play but his leaping ability is out-of-this-world. If he’s able to get it with one hand, he can tip it to his other. The concentration required is amazing because I would say routinely he has a guy in his face and is able to manoeuvre to where he can make a catch.”
IT’S A CLAYPOOL EDITION OF THE VL PODCAST!
On Thursday, Abbotsford Panthers’ head coach Jay Fujimura will give us his thoughts on each of Claypool’s four touchdowns this past Sunday, as well as provide an overview of his transition from high school to Notre Dame to the NFL in the latest edition of Varsity Letters-The Podcast, available at varsityletters.ca or wherever you listen to podcasts.
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