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With Clever being more creative offensively, Jays hope to have breakout stars

CLEVER'S GAGE EVANS gets set to throw downfield as teammates Blake Steele and Austin Scott watch.
CLEVER'S GAGE EVANS gets set to throw downfield as teammates Blake Steele and Austin Scott watch.

The early reviews are good concerning the overhaul Clever’s offense has undergone.

Entering their season-opener Saturday at home against Springfield Central, the Jays have spent the summer incorporating a more wide-open offense under new coach Willie Howard. 

“We managed to move the ball quite a bit at the Evangel Camp (in July) and at the Hollister jamboree (last week),” quarterback Gage Evans said. “Other teams' coaches have said we’re a lot different than last year.

“I’m excited, “ he added. "Running this offense, I think we're going to be able to move the ball a lot. It's a lot more fun moving the ball down the field and not just getting plowed over every single play.”

Clever is coming off a 2022 campaign averaging 7.5 points a game and in 2021 the Jays’ norm was 9.0 points a night.

Howard watched Clever games from the stands last year, as he served as the Jays’ athletics director. But he was aware the players were all but begging for a more imaginative offensive playbook.

He’s promised them as much ever since making the decision to return to the sidelines.

“When I took the job and said we were going to do this, they were excited,” Howard said. “The only time they haven't been excited was when we put in ‘Power’ as a running play. They said, 'We ran that last year, we don't want to run it again.' But I told them, 'Trust me, we're not going to run it out of the same formation every time.' Once they saw we run 25 different formations, they've said, 'This is fun, this is good.' it keeps them interested. I think they're responding very well.

“I've just got to be smarter about not overloading their brains with extra stuff,” he added. “We’ve kind of 'dumbed' it down. That's going to make them more successful and more confident.”

Howard’s 10-year tenure at Rolla that saw him serve as offensive coordinator and head coach included the Bulldogs averaging 37.5 points a game  in 2014.

No one’s expecting Clever to score in the 30s each week. But the Jays are confident they will put up bigger numbers.

Wide receiver Xavier Robinson is a big reason for their optimism. Howard is looking forward to being creative while tapping into the 6-foot-2, 160-pound Robinson’s potential.

“He's the guy we have to figure out how to get the ball to him 10-12 times a game, whether it's a bubble screen, an out-screen, a jet sweep or throwing vertical and fade balls to him,” Howard said. “We’ve got to get the ball in his hands because he's our breakaway speed guy. He can make people miss. We want to get him the ball on the edge and have him make people miss.”

Robinson feels the offensive changes are allowing him and Clever’s other receivers better chances to gain separation on defenders.

“Getting open is easier this year, given our formations and setups,” he said. “We have a lot of matchups and cross routes we can use to get our receivers open.”

Robinson has size, speed and athleticism on his side. He qualified for the Class 3 State Track Meet in the high jump last spring. He finished 11th at State with a leap of 6-foot-0.

Robinson also plays basketball. His sister, Riah, is a 2022 Clever grad who averaged 21.9 points a game her senior year for the Lady Jays.

“My favorite sport is football, but I'm more known for track since I went to State,” Robinson said. “I don't take basketball that seriously. It’s not my sport, it's my sister's sport. I let her have her own thing and football is my thing.”

Like Robinson, Evans also has made a name for himself in track much more so than football up to this point. Evans set a school record in the 300 hurdlers with a time of 43.34 last spring.

He thinks the athleticism and confidence he gained in track will have a carryover effect, as he looks to rifle passes downfield or keep the ball himself and run out of the pocket.

“I feel like running hurdles for the first time this year opened up some opportunities for me,” Evans said. “My confidence is up quite a bit.”

“Having that success in track (Robinson and Evans) had has to help,” Howard said. “One thing that's holding us back is the kids are just a little unsure if they belong or not. I think that mentality with Gage is going to have to grow. He has all the athletic tools. He just has to have some success on the football field and then it's going to take off for him.”

Evans’ sophomore season on the gridiron was over before it could hardly get started. He suffered a broken collarbone during a kickoff return in Week One.

“I still felt hyped while watching my friends play, but it wasn't the same,” he said.

In addition to Clever’s Week One contest being played Saturday, the Jays will also break from the norm in Week Two, when they will take the field Thursday while entertaining Sarcoxie.

A shortage of officials statewide has led to some schools moving some games from Fridays.

“We're running the ‘NFL short week schedule’ right out of the gate,” Howard said. “Luckily, we don't have to travel.”