This is day two of the 2018 Topeka 7 football previews. In this weekend edition, Ethan Koch takes a closer look at the Topeka West Chargers. To read the other Topeka 7 previews, find the links for each team at the bottom.
For most of his football career, Ryan Kelly won.
He started his freshman year as a defense back on a Topeka West Chargers team that went to the 5A state championship game. He was the starting quarterback for Topeka West in 2005, the Chargers team to finish with a winning record. He then played at Benedictine for four year under Larry Wilcox, who has the second most wins in the NAIA.
Kelly admitted going from consistent winning to 1-8 in his first season as head coach at his alma mater was tough.
“It’s a grind. It’s a real grind,” Kelly said. “I always thought the phrase ‘it’s a process’ was just a coaching cliché, until you live it. I’ve been very fortunate in my playing and short coaching career to be a part of successful football programs. This is a bit new for me, but…it’s such an exciting challenge, and to be able to do it back home at your alma mater just probably instills that much more drive in me to be able to turn this corner.”
One word keeps coming up when Kelly talks about this team: confidence. This team has confidence that second-year starting quarterback Hunter McDaniel will take the next step. This team has confidence in sophomore running back Clifton Holloman’s athletic prowess and his ability to bring balance to the offense. This team has confidence in the offensive and defensive line, units that have grown and developed from the previous season.
The 2018 Topeka West Chargers continue with their rebuild more confidence in their abilities and more confidence in how much they can achieve.
“I think we’re getting there,” Kelly said. “We’re making strides. We know this isn’t going to happen overnight or even a year, but I think just from the attitude that many of the guys have had and the efforts they’ve put in this off-season, you’re starting to see a little bit more positive energy around here. You’re starting to see some confidence build.”
Last year, Topeka West averaged 14.4 points per game, second-lowest in the city. Kelly will look for his senior quarterback McDaniel to step up and lead this team.
In his first year playing quarterback, McDaniel finished fourth in the city in total yards, according to the Topeka Capital-Journal. He threw for 1274 yards and 12 touchdowns while completing 45 percent of his passes. He also threw for 10 interceptions.
As a former quarterback, Kelly has worked on developing McDaniel’s footwork and pocket awareness.
“Overall, I just think he’s a lot more confident,” Kelly said. “He’s more confident in his body due to the training he’s put in this off-season over the last year. He’s doing really good things for our basketball program as well which has really developed his confidence as an athlete.”
McDaniel will have an improved offensive line suited to protect him. Seniors Jeff Mudoga, Jason Eck, Kevin Link, Noah Kuebler and Joe Fuqua-Bejarano – better known as Bear by his teammates – will man the trenches for this team.
“I think they understand that many of those guys are going to play a lot of snaps on Friday nights,” Kelly said of his offensive line. “They’ve really taken their conditioning and their weight training very seriously and it’s starting to pay off.”
This unit will help create holes for Holloman. After not recording a carry in the first five games, Holloman busted onto the season against Highland Park with a 23 carry, 150-yard performance.
“We saw something in him last year that, from an athletic standpoint, we knew he was going to have a bright future here,” Kelly said. “We wanted to get his feet wet last year without necessarily throwing him to the dogs. He handled that well. I think he has a much better idea now of the speed of the game, the physicality of the varsity level.”
Even though he only started four games, Holloman led the team in rushing last year. Last season, West averaged 2.1 yards per carry. Hollomon looks to fix that in his sophomore campaign.
The big question mark for this offense comes at the wide receiver position. Topeka West will have to replace Chris Ellis and Elliot Mehrens, who combined for 56 receptions, 809 yards and 7 touchdowns. Seniors Trevor Morrow and Vince Parker will get more targets this season. Junior Robert Hawkins will line up at receiver as well. Kelly has pegged Hawkins as his “most pleasant surprise over the summer.”
Defensively, Topeka West gave up 48 point per game last year. To cut that total, Kelly and defensive line coach Drew Egnoske have worked to improve their defensive front to better stop the run and get pressure on the quarterback. Kelly said he likes the improvement he has seen from that unit. Senior and All-City defensive team safety Jacob Blindt returns to anchor the secondary.
Topeka West opens the season against Hayden. Three of the four opponents Topeka West plays in September had losing records last year. However, they finish the season with back-to-back 6A opponents in Manhattan and Topeka High. Both of those teams shared the Centennial League title last year.
With Wichita Northwest dropping to 5A, Topeka West has been moved to the east region of the playoff format, joining the other three 5A schools from Topeka.
This school knows rebuilding the football program is a long-term project. This is only year two for coach Kelly, but he wants this school to get back to the winning ways it knew in the mid-2000s.
“It’s a day-by-day thing, and as long as we stay consistent about it I think we’re going to do good things here.”
All stats team and players stats are from the Topeka Capital-Journal.
Washburn Rural 2018 Football Preview –