The Nebraska prep football season kicked off on Friday with six week zero games including a top-five showdown between Omaha Creighton Prep and Bellevue West at Burke Stadium.
Hail Varsity was on hand as the Thunderbirds pulled out a 28-21 win thanks to a touchdown with 69 seconds remaining and a big defensive play.
Here are five thoughts on season-opening thriller.
Kicking the Season Off with a Bang
Nebraska didn’t ease into the season in the slightest with these two teams facing off right out of the gates, and the game lived up to the hype.
The two teams looked to be feeling each other out early with a scoreless first period. Prep struck first with a 12-play, 54-yard touchdown drive that ended in the end zone with less than 9 minutes to play in the first half.
Bellevue West dominated those last nine minutes, however, scoring three times to take a 21-7 lead into halftime.
Prep regrouped at halftime, however, and opened the second half with a 14-play, 81-yard touchdown drive that chewed up nearly seven minutes of game time. After a four-and-out resulted in a turnover on downs, Prep took advantage of a short field to tie the game up lale in the third quarter.
After four straight empty possessions, the Thunderbirds got the ball back with 2:23 to play and wasted no time, marching down the field and inside the Bellevue West 10 in less than a minute. On first and goal from the 8, junior quarterback Danny Kaelin dropped back and found running back Gio Contreras on a slant across the middle out of the slot for the go-ahead touchdown with 1:09 to go.
Prep had one last chance and got off to a good start with a 17-yard gain on first down. The Junior Jays completed another pass two plays later, but a defensive back popped the ball free after the catch and a T-Bird fell on it with 30 seconds left, giving Bellevue West a chance to close out the game in victory formation.
Creighton Prep’s strength is its running game with all five offensive line starters, led by Nebraska commit Sam Sledge, returning and one of the best running backs in the state in CharMar Brown.
Bellevue West features an explosive group of receivers with a quarterback in Kaelin ready to break out, and the Thunderbirds are still looking for a way to replace the state’s second-leading rusher from last season in current Wyoming Cowboy LJ Richardson.
Both teams played to their strengths on Friday night.
I counted just 11 carries for Bellevue West, and at least three of them were sacks. Coach Mike Huffman and the Bellevue West coaching staff put the ball in Kaelin’s hands and let him air it out all night.
Kaelin, who received multiple Power Five offers prior to his sophomore season (including one from Nebraska), went 21-of-34 for 268 yards, four touchdowns and one interception in his first game as the full-time starter after splitting time with a senior last season. He got off to a bit of a slow start but eventually settled in and completed his last 13 passes of the first half. He was nails on the game-winning drive as well, completing four of his five passes during a six-play, 74-yard march down the field.
A quarterback can’t complete passes without protection from the big guys up front, though, and it’s worth noting that Bellevue West started Jacob Arop at left tackle. The 6-foot-6, 255-pound junior is a starter for the basketball team but hadn’t played football since sixth or seventh grade. Arop told me he felt some jitters on the first drive but settled in from there, and he credited veterans David Waller and Kellen Steuben for helping get him ready to play. Arop has a big frame and is light on his feet, and despite his late start he looks to have the potential to grow into a really good tackle if he sticks with it.
Conversely, Creighton Prep attempted just nine passes all night while running the ball 52 times for nearly 300 yards. All three of the Junior Jays’ touchdowns came on the ground as well.
Brown, a North Dakota State commit, served as the workhorse back, carrying the ball 31 times for 171 yards and the first score of the game. He had to grind out some tough yards against stacked boxes, but he also showed off his ability in the open field with carries of 23, 19 and 15 yards.
Fullback George Egan added 38 yards on six carries while the Junior Jays got some good rushing production out of the quarterback position as well (more on that below).
Playmakers in Purple
Kaelin made sure to keep all of his receivers involved as his four touchdowns went to four different pass-catchers. The Thunderbirds lost three of their top four receivers from a season ago, but they still have plenty of talent left.
Kaelin’s top target on Friday night was a newcomer to the team in Isaiah McMorris, a transfer from Millard North who also plays in the secondary on defense. McMorris caught seven passes for 124 yards and a touchdown. He had a 30-yard catch-and-run to kick off the game-winning drive, then caught another pass a few plays later for 15 yards that set up Contreras’ touchdown. He’s one of a few transfers (middle linebacker J’Dyn Bullion being another) who will fit in just fine for the T-Birds.
Daniel Kaelin with his second TD throw of the night, this one to Isaiah McMorris from 30 yards out.
— Jacob Padilla (@JacobPadilla_) August 20, 2022
The team’s leading returning receiver is junior Dae’vonn Hall, another 2024 Huskers target. He caught four passes for 69 yards including the longest play of the day — a 49-yard touchdown on a beauty of a throw from Kaelin over the top to Hall streaking up the left sideline.
Senior Kyrell Jordan caught six passes for 52 yards and a touchdown while Contreras chipped in six catches for 23 yards including the winning touchdown.
Change of Pace
Dean Donaldson, a Creighton Prep junior who transferred from Bellevue West last year, got the start at quarterback against his former team. However, the Junior Jays struggled to create separation down the field and Donaldson didn’t get many chances to show off his arm.
He wasn’t the only quarterback that saw the field for Prep, though. Ezra Vedral, the younger brother of former Husker Noah Vedral, served as a change of pace off the bench, providing more of a run threat from the quarterback position thanks to his comfortability with the option and overall athleticism.
Vedral carried the ball 12 times for 75 yards and was responsible for both of Prep’s third-quarter touchdowns. He punched the first one in from 2 yards out, and for the second score he broke one off from 19 yards out. Vedral also had runs of 17 and 12 yards and converted a third-and-5 with a 6-yard run on the play prior to his first touchdown.
Vedral, who transferred from Wahoo Neumann last season, also played some middle linebacker for the Junior Jays, allowing him to make an impact on both sides of the ball.
Bellevue West ultimately won the game in the final two minutes, but there were some big momentum-shifting plays throughout the game, especially on special teams. Senior safety Donovan Whitfield made two of them.
First, an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Bellevue West’s second touchdown led to a 15-yard penalty on the ensuing kickoff. The T-Bird kick landed short and the Junior Jay return anticipated catching it off the hop, but instead it bounced backwards and Whitfield beat everyone to the ball, giving Bellevue West possession with a short field.
Later, Whitfield dropped back to punt the ball, but an errant snap sailed way over his head. He tracked the ball down some 30 yards past the line of scrimmage, picked it up, turned around and immediately booted the ball just before a Junior Jay reached him. The ball ended up traveling all the way down to the Creighton Prep 30 after a couple of bounces and a friendly roll.
Two of the biggest plays in tonight's game actually came on special teams – and both by @Donnovan_Whit16 – recovered a kickoff and turned a high snap into a game-saving punt. pic.twitter.com/5VObNdphfg
— Matt Foster KETV (@MattFosterTV) August 20, 2022
Kyrell Jordan also made a great play on special teams, flying off the edge to block a 44-yard field goal attempt early in the fourth quarter to maintain the tie.
Kyrell Jordan screaming off the edge to block the Creighton Prep field goal attempt. pic.twitter.com/rxvQQffzFD
— Jacob Padilla (@JacobPadilla_) August 20, 2022
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.