Flathead’s run, pass, catch attack

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Flathead's Blake Counts, Jaden MacNeil and AJ Jones at Legends Stadium on Wednesday. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)

By DAVID LESNICK

The Daily Inter Lake

While the TD passes were quickly adding up for Flathead senior wide receiver Anthony Jones in a home football game on Oct. 5 versus Missoula Big Sky, he wasn’t keeping count.

That really didn’t matter.

What Jones was more concerned with at the time was getting the win, and focusing on that.

“I don’t care how many touchdowns, yards I have, I just want to win at the end of the game,” he said.

“I just want a W.”

Jones and Flathead got the W alright, a decisive 56-21 win over the Eagles at Legends Stadium. The 6-foot-2, 200-pound wide out also claimed something extra special in the process — he tied the school record for touchdown receptions in a game with five. He had scoring catches of 27, 10, 19, 46 and 49 yards.

He finished the blowout with 11 receptions for 199 yards.

“Really, I just wanted to win, didn’t care too much about it (tying the record),” he said.

“Just keep doing things right, helping my team out.”

Jones has become a standout at his position in his final seasons despite playing only 2 1/2 years of football. A fractured ankle during a season of Pop Warner football in California nearly kept him off the gridiron for good.

“I didn’t think football was the right sport for me physically,” he said.

“I tried to give it up.”

But that changed after a chance meeting with head football coach Kyle Samson in the hallways at Flathead High School.

“I remember the first time meeting coach Samson. He asked me: ‘Do you play football?’ I told him ‘No, I don’t. I stopped in 7th grade.’ He said he thought I would be a good football player.”

Jones said he gave Samson’s compliment some serious thought, and after a couple of months of weighing the pros and cons of playing again, made a decision.

“I thought I would give it a try and see what happens,” he said.

Jones did miss the final half of his sophomore season because of a nagging shoulder injury he suffered while playing American Legion baseball earlier that summer.

However last year as a junior, he became a starter and was injury free.

This year he has developed into the go-to-guy in the Braves explosive, big-play aerial game.

“Kind of after the third touchdown,” he said of his knowing he was having a banner night against the Eagles.

“I thought that’s pretty cool, but I really didn’t think too much of it, just keep playing.”

He had three touchdown catches in the first quarter, one in the second and one in the fourth.

“All were different routes,” he said.

“A Dagger, like a drag to a corner; one was a swirl slant and out; a fade route; one was a Ram, corner post; and a wheel stop, 10 or 12 yards and break down, stop and catch the ball.”

Jones and senior quarterback Jaden MacNeil, who was involved in a school record seven touchdowns in that same game — five passing, one running and one receiving — have developed quite the chemistry in short order.

“He’s a great quarterback for his first year,” Jones said.

“He’s doing great.

“He puts them where they need to be most of the time,” Jones said of MacNeil’s passes.

“He knows where to throw the ball, has a feel for throwing it.”

It also helps that Jones runs precise routes and is very shifty and sure-handed.

“I do as well as I can to make sure everything falls into my hands,” he said. “It’s more my awareness where the defender is and I’m quick with my first few steps rather than being fast. Beating people off the ball gets me the edge and I’m super physical.”

Heading into Friday night’s regular-season finale at Legends Stadium with Helena High, Jones has 49 receptions for 754 yards and 10 touchdowns after nine weeks of play. All three numbers are team highs.

He is averaging 15.39 yards per catch. His season long is 55 yards.

MacNeil is 96 of 155 passing (61.9 percent) for 1,422 yards, 20 touchdowns and five interceptions. His season long is 62 yards.

He has rushed for 937 yards on 111 carries for an 8.44 average. He has a long of 62 yards and has rushed for eight touchdown.

He also has two receptions for 19 yards and two touchdowns.

“The Big Sky game,” MacNeil said of his breakthrough performance.

“I wasn’t considered a good passer, but in that game I feel like I really sprouted. I just felt more comfortable, it built my confidence of staying in the pocket. Ever since that game, I’ve thrown the ball consistently well.”

MacNeil said Samson approached him about a position switch from safety to quarterback after last year’s playoff loss.

“I was pretty nervous about it,” he said.

“I knew I would have some difficulties being one of the shorter guys.”

MacNeil is 5-9.

But some of those fears disappeared during the team’s trip to Idaho last summer for a football camp. After a challenging first day, he said everything went a little smoother after that.

“It was pretty difficult,” he said of the transition. “I wouldn’t say I enjoy this more. It’s just different. I had to learn what everyone on the offense was doing on every single play.”

He said having playmakers like Jones and running back Blake Counts makes his job a little easier.

“A lot of times, guys covering him can’t cover him,” he said of Jones.

“He’s usually one of my first reads.

“Counts helps a lot, pulls those linebackers in when we do our play action.”

He said the offensive line also has a big part in the team’s dynamic offense — opening holes for Counts and giving him the protection he needs in the passing game.

“I think I still have a lot of learning to do,” MacNeil said.

“I still would like to improve on my throwing and being able to go through my progressions a little further.”

Counts has rushed for a school record 1,763 yards on 235 attempts. He’s averaging an impressive 7.47 yards per carry with a long of 71 yards.

He also has six receptions for an additional 212 yards. That averages out to 35.33 yards per catch with a long of 60.

He has 17 rushing touchdowns and five receiving.

Counts shared the running back duties a year ago, but still totaled 1,250 yards. This year, it’s been all Counts and he has held up exceedingly well to the challenge and weekly grind.

“My junior year I was close,” he said of the school rush record.

“So this year one of my goals was to break it.”

He accomplished that — breaking the school rush record for a season — in Week 8 in Great Falls against C.M. Russell. He needed 47 yards to break it and finished with 203 yards on 24 attempts in a 38-9 victory.

He has rushed for more than 100 yards in every game. His season low was 140 at Bozeman. His season high was 274 in Washington-Grizzly Stadium against Missoula Sentinel.

“I knew coming into the season it would be hard to stop our triple threat,” Counts said.

“Jones opens the game up. He gets a lot of double teams.

“I get almost every carry, every game,” he said. “I’m a lot faster than I was last year.”

And he’s just as punishing as he was a year ago when it comes to running over defenders and breaking tackles.

“All three are very special to me personally,” Samson said of his three senior stars.

“I have great relationships with all of them. Not only are they great football players, but also really great kids. I believe they are the best players at their position in the state. All three have had individual success, but at the end of the game they care more about the team than they do their stats. It’s a huge reason why we are successful and why they are such a pleasure to coach.”

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