MUSKEGON – If Julian Neely’s season had gone exactly the way he envisioned it, he would be the Muskegon Big Reds’ starting quarterback in Saturday’s Division 3 state championship game.
Before the season began, Neely was locked in a long battle with junior M’Khi Guy and fellow senior Princeton Blackmon for the starting QB role.
As everyone knows, Guy won that battle and has emerged as one of the most explosive quarterbacks in the state.
Neely, meanwhile, took on a new challenge on the other side of the ball, becoming the starting strong safety and one of the top defensive players in the area.
Both players had huge roles in last Saturday’s impressive 49-21 victory over DeWitt in the state semifinal game at Greenville High School.
Guy got most of the headlines, of course, rushing for an amazing 341 yards and six touchdowns in the game, while Neely led the impressive defensive effort with seven tackles and an interception.
Now the two standouts will lead the Big Reds into the state finals against powerful Detroit Martin Luther King, which is trying to win its second straight Division 3 title.
With one game left in his varsity career, Neely admits he really wanted to be the starting QB and said losing out on the job was a disappointment.
“Honestly, being my senior season, it tore me up, I’m not going to lie to you,” he said. “It hurt a lot because I had put so much work in and felt like I had won the job.”
But Neely also happily admits the obvious – that Guy has become a very powerful weapon as the Muskegon QB.
“M’Khi is going crazy!” said Neely, who remains the backup quarterback. “Six touchdowns last week! He’s doing the work he needs to do for us to win, and that’s all that matters.”
He also says he loves to play defense, particularly in a sort of hybrid safety position that allows him to move around and do a lot of damage in different ways.
“I had never played strong safety before this season, but I’m playing it, our defense is doing well, and I just want to win a ring on Saturday!” he said.
Muskegon head coach Shane Fairfield says that type of team-first attitude, from Neely, Blackmon and all the players, has been a special component to the Big Reds’ success this season.
“It was a great quarterback competition, neither (Neely or Blackmon) quit, and now one is our weakside safety and one is our strong safety,” Fairfield said. “They both had to be mature and self-evaluate and do what was best for the team, and they both did that.
“I had a talk with the team yesterday and told them that I really think our success is built on our unselfishness, and the fact that they all really care about each other. A lot of teams will say that, wanting you to believe that everything is peaches in their program, and it’s not always the case.
“But it’s true with this team. These guys are happy to see each other make plays, and they make the plays when it’s their turn. They all want to win so badly.”
Neely’s high school football career has been a steady build since its disappointing start four years ago.
He transferred to Muskegon from Mona Shores as a freshman and was starting for the ninth-grade team, but midway through the season he was ruled ineligible for the rest of the year because officials said he transferred too late.
To add insult to injury, the news came just before the Big Red freshmen played Mona Shores that year.
“It tore me in half,” Neely said. “I really wanted to play in that game, especially, to show how I had changed and what I had gotten better at.”
Neely returned as a sophomore on the JV squad the following year. He played mostly defensive end or linebacker early in the season, but also filled in at quarterback following some injuries and performed very well.
Last year, as a junior on varsity, he again played defensive end and linebacker while also getting some offensive reps at tight end and H-back.
This season, after the quarterback competition ended, the coaches decided that Neely might fit very well in the defensive backfield, due to his overall athleticism.
“We were kind of tossing back and forth where we wanted to play him,” Fairfield said. “He had a very good offseason as far as the weight room goes, and we finally decided he could be very good in the secondary.
“He’s strong, athletic, instinctive and very passionate. He’s really grown into being a very good football player and a tackling machine. He loves to come up and hit (ball-carriers). Sometimes we have to keep a harness on him to keep him back.”
Neely took to his new position like a fish in water.
In the season opener against East Kentwood, he intercepted passes on two of the Falcons’ final three possessions to nail down a close 20-14 victory. He also broke up four passes and ran in a successful two-point conversion attempt on offense.
In a Week 6 victory over Zeeland East, he led the team with eight tackles. In a huge rivalry victory over Mona Shores, he was second on the team with five tackles, including three solo stops, and deflected two passes.
Neely has made important contributions in each of the four playoff victories, as well. He had three tackles and an interception with a 39-yard return in the pre-district win over Sparta. He had four tackles and two pass deflections in the district title victory over Coopersville. He had seven tackles in the regional championship win over Zeeland West.
Last week, playing in the blowing and drifting snow in the state semifinals, he led a defensive effort that shut down the usually high-scoring DeWitt offense.
“I like being out there, sometimes lining up at linebacker and sometimes at safety,” Neely said. “I love moving around and being effective on different parts of the field. It’s a blast. I love taking the ball from the offense.”
Neely noted that the Big Reds chose to practice all last week in the snow, rather than prepare indoors, and he thinks that helped them adjust to the arctic conditions in Greenville.
“I feel like DeWitt might not have practiced outside, but we were out there every day, in the cold and ice, we were ready to go, and we got it done,” he said.
A majority of players on the Big Red roster are underclassmen, so no matter what happens on Saturday they can look forward to what promises to be another great season next year.
But Neely is one of 17 seniors on the squad, so for him there is no next year, at least at the high school level.
He’s always dreamed of playing in the state finals, his opportunity has arrived, and he intends to make the most of it.
“It’s like a storybook ending to my career,” he said. “It’s my last year, and all I know is that I’m working as hard as I’ve ever worked, I’m in the best shape of my life and I’m ready to go. I’m super excited.”