Saturday, August 20, 2016
Nebraska’s best high school football teams? They still reside in the Metro Conference in 2016. Omaha North and Millard North, winners of the past four state titles, immediately come to mind.
But, at least this year, many of the best players reside in the suburbs and beyond.
Noah Vedral is from Wahoo Neumann. He’s committed to Central Florida, where the ultimate small-town Nebraska quarterback — Scott Frost — is running the show.
Aurora’s Austin Allen may miss the season with a knee injury, but the 6-foot-8, soft-handed tight end — committed to Nebraska — is impossible to miss with a big frame and outgoing personality.
Ashland-Greenwood, which like Aurora is represented on the Super Six for the second straight year, has two-way lineman Brett Kitrell, who is pledged to Minnesota.
Closer to Omaha, Gretna’s Patrick Arnold, pound for pound, might be the state’s most tenacious, most effective lineman. He’s still on the Huskers’ radar.
At Bellevue West, running back Jaylin Bradley will take aim at 2,000 yards with the aid of lineman Tyler Ciurej, committed to South Dakota.
Ashland-Greenwood High School is on the edge of Ashland, and Kitrell is often there working out, preparing for his senior year and a college career at Minnesota. RYAN SODERLIN/THE WORLD-HERALD
Ashland-Greenwood lineman • Height: 6-4 • Weight: 270
2015 in review: Kitrell had a strong start to his season at defensive end and on the offensive line, but it was cut short by a knee injury against Syracuse. The injury kept Kitrell out for the rest of the season — and possibly denied Ashland-Greenwood a plum shot at the Class C-1 state title — and, to some degree, it kept Kitrell off the radar of some colleges as he rehabbed.
2016 outlook: Kitrell lives just a stone’s throw from the high school, and he’s there often working out, preparing for his senior year. After committing to Minnesota — which chose to offer him a scholarship and trust that he’ll come back healthy from the injury — Kitrell will move from defensive end to tackle. On offense, he’ll play guard, his projected position in college. Kitrell had, at one time, thought his future might be on the defensive line. “I’m excited,” he said. “I’ll definitely be paying attention to both sides of the ball.” Kitrell’s older brother, Bo, plays fullback at Nebraska, like their dad, Barry.
College plans: Committed to Minnesota and is fully qualified academically. He has one B in high school — in college algebra.
Kitrell on what it takes to be a good lineman: “Having a great motor. A lot of toughness is important.”
Kitrell on growing up with older brothers and a dad who played the game: “Pretty much every day we’d have kids over and play a game of football. And it was always tackle.”
Coach Ryan Thompson on Kitrell’s excellence before his injury: “He kind of dominated what he was doing. He definitely made his presence felt those first six quarters.”
— Sam McKewon
Noah Vedral elevated his status as a quarterback prospect by attending 17 camps in four weeks one summer. The Central Florida recruit is also a state champion hurdler and an All-Class C-1 basketball player. CHRIS MACHIAN/THE WORLD-HERALD
Wahoo Neumann quarterback • Height: 6-2 • Weight: 185
2015 in review: Vedral emerged as an explosive offensive threat during a productive junior season, running for 823 yards and 11 touchdowns while throwing for 1,527 yards and 16 touchdowns. And it really wasn’t that much of a surprise. Not when you consider how hard he has worked. He’s toured the country to receive the best training and tutelage. There was one summer month, he remembers, when he packed 17 camps into a four-week span. “Craziest month of my life,” he said. That was back during his sophomore year. Things have calmed since. Vedral has settled into his role as a leader on a team with high hopes for 2016. Wahoo Neumann, which was 8-3 last year, lost to Norfolk Catholic in the Class C-1 state quarterfinals.
2016 outlook: Neumann, under longtime coach Tim Turman, will still have an option-based attack. But Vedral’s arm talent will open up some things. His mechanics have improved. Turman said Vedral throws well on the run. Enough veteran skill players and tenacious offensive linemen return to boost Vedral’s confidence, too. He said the entire team — anchored by a core of 15 seniors — has had an enthusiastic attitude all offseason. It seems to start with Vedral, though. “He’s very confident in his skill, his teammates’ skills,” Turman said. “As you mature and grow older, particularly in that quarterback position, that leadership ability just kind of grows with you. For me, he’s another coach on the field.”
College plans: Vedral, who will fully qualify academically, has committed to Central Florida, where former Husker Scott Frost is coach. Vedral announced it in June. And he’s glad to have it out of the way. “I’m unbelievably excited about the chance to play there,” he said, “but now I can focus on this season. It’s one last run with my guys — my best friends — at a state title.”
Vedral on his teammates: “It’s very much the feeling of brothers. You can go to anyone, and they’ll have your back. They’ll push you. And there’s always respect — for each other and our opponents. I think it’s been a really great preseason.”
Favorite warmup music: “Lose Yourself,” by Eminem. That makes every pregame playlist, he said. The other tracks get selected based on the week’s opponent and his mood.
— Jon Nyatawa
Jaylin Bradley ran for 1,712 yards and 19 touchdowns last season. This year, he’s aiming for 2,500 yards and 30 TDs. MATT DIXON/THE WORLD-HERALD
Bellevue West running back • Height: 6-0 • Weight: 191
2015 in review: Bradley is coming off the best season by a tailback in school history, running for 1,712 yards and 19 touchdowns as Bellevue West made the Class A semifinals. “He had an unbelievable year,” Thunderbirds coach Mike Huffman said. “I know people thought we were chucking it all over the place, but he averaged over 8.0 per carry.” Huffman said Bradley impressed him with his change of direction and how he fought for every yard. The coach compared him to former Omaha Central star David Horne. “He runs like a 210-pound back, but with the agility of a smaller guy,” Huffman said. Though he started as a sophomore, Bradley said, he felt better about his reads and more confident hitting holes as a junior. Bellevue West runs an Oregon-type offense, so he fed off the T-birds spreading the field horizontally. He was also steady in pass protection.
2016 outlook: Look for Bradley to see a bigger workload, especially with Bellevue West replacing two-year starter Jadyn Kowalski at quarterback. That could regularly mean 25-plus carries a game, Huffman said, but the coach wants to make sure not to overuse him in the first few weeks. Huffman saw Bradley’s value as a receiver out of the backfield from watching his work at summer camps, so that could be incorporated more into the Thunderbirds’ plan (adding an easier throw for a new quarterback). Bradley said he was surprised at his rushing total as a junior, but now has set goals of 2,500 yards and 30 TDs for his senior season. It won’t hurt that he’s running behind a line that returns four starters.
College plans: The only offer is from South Dakota State, but Huffman said Bradley is drawing interest from schools such as Kansas State, Iowa State and Wyoming as he works to meet academic eligibility requirements. North Dakota State and other Missouri Valley Football Conference schools also have talked to Bradley, and Huffman said Iowa Western CC “wants him big-time.”
Huffman on Bradley: “I think he’s the best high school football player in Nebraska.”
Bradley on 2016: “I want to try to help my team go all the way this year. I’ve been working hard in the weight room to try and be there for my teammates. I’m supposed to get 25 to 30 carries a game, so I’m getting prepared for that.”
— Rich Kaipust
Allen faces a long recovery after injuring his knee playing basketball. The Nebraska commit could return by the Class B playoffs. CHRIS MACHIAN/THE WORLD-HERALD
Aurora tight end • Height: 6-8 • Weight: 225
2015 in review: For most of his life in sports, Allen thought he’d be a college basketball player. He was always the tallest kid in class and the best post player on his team. But in his sophomore year of football at Aurora, he began the shift from offensive line to tight end, and by his junior year, he was tough to stop, with 41 catches for 507 yards. He received a slew of offers — including from Nebraska, UCLA, Iowa State, Iowa and Central Florida — and picked the home-state Huskers. Allen proved to be a tough cover, coach Kyle Peterson said, because of his athleticism. Allen is also “charismatic,” Peterson said, and a natural leader and encourager at Aurora.
2016 outlook: If Allen plays football at all this season for Aurora, it’d be a surprise, as he tore knee cartilage during a June basketball game. Recovery time for the injury is four to six months, which means, at best, Allen is back for the Class B playoffs. If he is good to go, he will, but Peterson and Allen agreed: He has to be healthy, or it’s not worth the risk. Allen will play basketball for the Huskies if he’s healthy; he’ll have a chance at being All-Nebraska if he does. Allen may be a candidate to play early for Mike Riley’s Huskers.
College plans: Committed to Nebraska and is fully qualified academically.
Allen on always being the biggest kid: “Sometimes, when you’re tall, people just look at you as a leader.”
Peterson, on Allen’s talents: “He’s fast enough to run by linebackers and he just knows how to body up safeties. He’s just tough to cover.”
— Sam McKewon
Tyler Ciurej doesn’t stop working until the whistle blows. “He’s a finisher,” Bellevue West coach Mike Huffman said. “He’s looking to pancake people.” MATT DIXON/THE WORLD-HERALD
Bellevue West guard • Height: 6-3½ • Weight: 305
2015 in review: Bellevue West had high expectations for Ciurej (pronounced Sure A) in his third season as a starter, and he didn’t disappoint, making first-team All-Nebraska as a junior. Playing left guard, he helped the Thunderbirds total more than 3,000 yards passing and 2,000 rushing. “His No. 1 thing is he’s a finisher,” Bellevue West coach Mike Huffman said. “He’s going to get his hands on you and he’s going to finish a player. He’s looking to pancake people.” Ciurej said he feels further along as a run blocker than as a pass blocker, but Huffman said Ciurej understands protections and does a good job with them. He didn’t mind the increase in demands as a junior and said his line mates fed off his energy, “and that’s what I’m hoping to do again this year.”
2016 outlook: Bellevue West has worked with Ciurej to improve his footwork, agility and flexibility, and Huffman wants that to continue into his senior year. “My first level is as good as anybody in the state,” Ciurej said. “But my second level, my linebacker and safety blocking, is what I’ve got to get better at.” The Thunderbirds must replace an All-Nebraska quarterback, so Ciurej and three other returning line starters will need to make the transition go smoothly. Ciurej also is one of the Thunderbirds’ best defensive tackles, but his playing time at that spot fluctuates from game to game, depending on opponent and situation. “He’s going to give us everything he’s got, and he’s going to have fun with it,” Huffman said. The goal again will be a state championship. “We’re never going to stop having that goal, as long as Huffman is the head coach,” Ciurej said. “But it all starts week one vs. Papio South.”
College plans: Committed to South Dakota and is academically qualified. Also had offers from Colorado State, New Mexico, Liberty and South Dakota State.
Huffman on Ciurej as a senior: “I want him to continue to get out there and lead. He is doing what he is supposed to do, and he’s starting to bring up those guys around (him), and he needs to be doing that all the time. Set that expectation.”
Ciurej on a 35-34 overtime loss to Millard North in the 2015 Class A semifinals: “I relive Millard North every night. It still sits wrong with me. I never stop thinking about it. That’s pretty much what motivates me this whole offseason. The last series … I just can’t get rid of it.”
— Rich Kaipust
Two-way lineman Patrick Arnold grew up fishing at an area pond. “This is my sanctuary,” he said. Several schools are angling for his services with scholarship offers, including Wyoming, Army, Navy and Columbia. A projected center, he has yet to make a decision. REBECCA S. GRATZ/THE WORLD-HERALD
Gretna offensive tackle • Height: 6-2 • Weight: 295
2015 in review: The first thing you notice about Arnold: his size and his footwork. At least that’s what stuck out to coach Dave Shrader. And once Arnold made a commitment to focus on the finer details and to raise his effort level, he became a force on both sides of the ball. He plays offensive tackle and a bit of guard, capable of pulling and maneuvering in space, his coach says. Arnold gets snaps on the defensive line as well. “He’s one that would go every rep if you’d let him,” Shrader said. “He’s a bulldozer.” Arnold helped Gretna to a 7-4 record and an appearance in the state quarterfinals. The Dragons lost 15-13 to Aurora.
2016 outlook: Arnold’s individual goals aren’t limited to his in-the-trenches battles against his Nebraska peers. He’s thinking about playing college ball. With an eye on college and at the urging of his coach, Arnold has made it a point to take a more disciplined approach this offseason. His teammates have helped, too. They decided to organize 6:30 a.m. workouts over the past few months. “I wake up earlier in the summer than I do during the school year,” Arnold cracked. But that’s not a bad thing. “We’re trying to create a winning environment in the weight room, too.” Scholarship offers have trickled in over the past few months, only intensifying his passion. He was a standout at two separate camps in Lincoln and performed well at a Rivals camp in Kansas City. “I started to taste more success and realize how close I was to achieving my goals,” he said. “I want to give my all this senior season. Just be prepared as possible.”
College plans: Still to be decided. Arnold, who will be fully qualified, has several scholarship offers from programs such as Wyoming, Army, Navy and Columbia. He projects as a center. “I would have preferred to have my college decision made before (the season),” he said. “But regardless, I’m going to play for my team. Take every game week by week.”
Arnold on his team’s expectations: “We’ve never been to Lincoln as a team. I think this is the year we can do it. The team comes first. This is football — it’s 11 men going for one goal. I think we’re going to have a pretty good squad.”
Favorite warmup music: It’s usually some smooth country music a few hours out. But right before kickoff? “Angry rock and roll,” he said. Something by Five Finger Death Punch, perhaps.
— Jon Nyatawa