Before last fall, it had been 24 years since the Jackson football team reached the pinnacle of high school sports — the state championship game. That drought came to an end last season as the Indians were the Class 5 runner-ups after falling to Carthage 27-21 in the state title game.
On top of making it to state for the first time since 1995, Jackson went undefeated in the regular season back-to-back for the first time in program history and finished 13-1 overall. The Indians also won back-to-back SEMO North Conference and Class 5 District 1 Championships.
Out of the 22 positions on offense and defense, Jackson only graduated nine players and return seven Class 5 All-State selections.
Offensively, the Indians averaged 45.3 points per game while they managed to score 52 or more points on seven different occasions last season.
Leading the huddle for his third and final campaign is two-time, first team all-state senior quarterback Cael Welker, who has thrown for 6,086 yards and 83 touchdowns with only 13 interceptions on 600 attempts the past two seasons. Welker has also gained 1,343 yards and scored 21 touchdowns on the ground.
“Cael has had another really good offseason — he’s been a good worker for us,” Jackson head coach Brent Eckley said. “He’s been a kid that when we need to throw the football in the offseason, he’s there organizing it and working to get better. He loves football and loves his teammates.
“I’ve been very lucky to coach some really good quarterbacks. Some of that has to do with getting the right kid that wants to do it. There’s no science to that. You get a teenage kid that can see [plays] like you see them as a coach, you’re just so far ahead of defenses.”
While Welker returns his top-two receiving targets from last season in all-state senior tight end Rhet Liley (43 catches, 637 yards and five touchdowns) and junior wide receiver Kannen Turley (47 receptions, 690 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns), the players Jackson returns to its offensive line is just as key.
The one who has made the biggest name for himself is none other than all-state senior left tackle Connor Tollison, who committed to play college football for the University of Missouri back in March. During this past offseason, the two-time all-state and four-year starting left tackle also earned offers from national-championship contending programs Alabama and Oklahoma.
Tollison leads an offensive line that returns other starters like fellow all-stater junior Ashton Flinn, who played beside Tollison at left guard in 2019 but has now moved to right tackle this season. Other players returning include all-conference and all-district senior center Thomas Ruch and junior guards Cameron Byrd and Liam Bryant.
“I think we could have the best offensive line that we’ve had since I’ve been here,” Coach Eckley said. “I think right now we’ve got some pretty good lineman in our program. They’re big, athletic and confident, and they have really bought into their role.”
Carrying the ball behind this offensive line will be senior running back Daniel Dickerson, who after an all-state sophomore campaign suffered a torn ACL two games into last season. In 2018, Dickerson recorded 1,628 all-purpose yards while scoring 23 touchdowns on 182 touches.
Dickerson ran for 182 yards and two touchdowns on 15 carries before his junior season was cut short. Filling in for Dickerson was 2020 graduate Seth Waters, who finished with 1,640 all-purpose yards and 18 touchdowns off 231 touches.
Other options at running back will be sophomore Tony Williams, who carried the ball 14 times for 113 yards and one touchdown as a freshman. Senior Dimechi Herring will also factor into the backfield, who would’ve taken over for Dickerson had he not also torn his ACL last season.
Along with Liley and Turley, senior wide receiver Ty Moran also returns to Jackson’s starting lineup while it looks like sophomore Marquis Eckley will take over the reins at slot receiver opposite of Turley. The Indians lost two slot receivers to graduation in Luke Starzinger and Dalton Skrob, who combined for 55 catches, 1,041 yards and 18 touchdown grabs.
In his first year of varsity action, Turley recorded three multiple touchdown games as he produced the most in a 52-6 win over Parkway Central with five scores on eight catches and 98 yards. Two weeks later, Turley hauled in three touchdowns on nine catches for 173 yards in Jackson’s 49-20 win over Fox for the district title.
Defensively, the Indians only allowed a total of 146 points (10.4 per game) in 2019 while shutting out six opposing offenses and holding semifinal opponent Staley to seven on their home turf in Kansas City.
Leading the defense over the past two seasons has been the likes of senior all-state inside linebackers Randol McDowell and Bryce Norman, who have combined for 680 tackles, 110 tackles for a loss and 18 sacks over the last two seasons. The duo also scored 20 points off defensive touchdowns last year.
Norman garnered first team all-state honors after finishing with a team-high 180 stops, 32 TFLs as well as recording three sacks, two interceptions, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery.
McDowell earned second team all-state honors for the second year after pacing Norman with 177 tackles, 30 for a loss and also had a team-high five sacks, five forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries. He tied for the most defensive points (12) with senior outside linebacker Garner Horman.
“As a coach you always recognize this — during one season in a player’s senior year, you’re probably taking it for granted,” Coach Eckley said. “There’s things that happen on the field and you just start to expect it. When they’re gone the next year you’re like, ‘What in the world?’ It’s because that kid made those plays.
“Bryce and Randol are that way. They read really well, and they are physical and fast. They understand how to take on blocks and manipulate blockers to get a free run where they need to go.”
Horman, who is coming off earning all-state honors as a wrestler for the second year in a row, is Jackson’s third-leading returning tackler with 63 stops and 13 behind the line of scrimmage. He also recorded a pick six and returned a fumble for a touchdown in 2019.
Now that McDowell has moved to inside linebacker from outside, players like junior Ryley Styer and sophomore Griffin Horman will be vying for the spot. At safety and on special teams last year, Styer racked up 38 tackles, three tackles for a loss, one fumble recovery and two blocked kicks.
Jackson lost both of its starting defensive ends from last season to graduation in Cole Amelunke and Bret Meyer. Amelunke was a three-year starter for the Indians, who earned all-state accolades his senior campaign after recording 87 tackles, 16 tackles for a loss and four sacks. Hoping to fill those starting positions will be players like sophomore Tony Terry, junior Cole Parker and senior Chase Gray.
The lone returning starter on the Indians defensive line will be three-year starting senior nose tackle Zane Lawrence-Collier, who had 48 stops, four tackles for a loss and one sack last year.
Jackson’s defensive back-field returns junior Blake Blackman and Dimechi Herring, while graduating starters like cornerback Markiese Jones and safeties Caleb Craft and Grant Sides. Jones is now playing college football at McKendree University.
Herring will serve as the Indians No. 1 cornerback as Blackman, who had a team-high four interceptions along with six pass deflections and 56 tackles opposite of Jones, will be moving to safety. Juniors Carson Hartlein and Flint Guilliams will also play at safety.
Making a position change to play at cornerback will be junior Joshua Wehrenberg, who had 73 carries for 359 yards and scored seven touchdowns at running back last year.