DENHAM SPRINGS – Any reservations Denham Springs football coach Brett Beard had about starting Ray McKneely at quarterback this season were quelled fairly quickly.
And it was all based on one frame of mind.
“At the end of the day, football players are football players,” Beard said. “I think Ray McKneely is a football player. No matter what we ask him to do …”
McKneely, normally a running back, filled in admirably at quarterback for a stretch this season when the Yellow Jackets lost Reese Mooney with a broken ankle in a win over Franklinton in the third game of the season.
In part because of that, McKneely, who was the parish’s first-team quarterback, was selected the Offensive Most Valuable Player on the 2021 All-Livingston Parish Football Team by the parish’s coaches.
McKneely, who rushed for 1,000 yards and 18 touchdowns, said his thought process was simple after learning he’d be splitting time at quarterback with Ryder Wygant and Jerry Horne following Mooney’s injury.
“Take over,” he said. “Be a leader. Get the job done.”
In the first game after Mooney’s injury, McKneely rushed 71 yards and two touchdowns in a 59-6 win over Tara as the Yellow Jackets rolled up 300 yards of total offense.
In consecutive losses to Central and Zachary, Denham managed 99 yards of total offense in both games. At the same time, McKneely and the other DSHS quarterbacks were learning their roles.
“It wasn’t really tough on me,” McKneely said of the team finding a groove on offense. “I felt like it was tough on other players more because they didn’t really know who was going to be the starting guy at the time. Once they put me in there, I feel like all the other players got comfortable because they knew I could handle it, and they trusted me.”
Bread shared that sentiment.
“At that point, the guy with probably the most poise and the guy that could handle what we were about to put on him was Ray,” Beard said. “We tried other guys. They weren’t necessarily bad. They weren’t bad. They just weren’t ready. For us to put that pressure and all that on his shoulders, we felt like he was the guy that could handle it, and he did.”
“He’s a jack of all trades, a guy that really was the leader of our offense when it came time to really do anything,” Beard continued. “We felt like that was the guy we could lean on and get on his shoulders, and he was going to take us where we needed to go. He was a great leader for the time and need that we were in – great attitude, embraced everything, every change, every wrinkle that we threw at him. He probably wasn’t the craziest about playing quarterback full time because he’s such a good running back and he was comfortable back there. The pre-snap reads and just preparation to be a quarterback on Friday night is completely different than just a running back. He really embraced everything and exceeded all our expectations and did a phenomenal job all year just handling our offense and everything we went through.”
Even in a loss, McKneely said he found his comfort zone against Zachary.
“In the first quarter, we came out and punched Zachary in the mouth,” McKneely said. “We drove down the field. We didn’t score (a touchdown). We got a field goal that drive, but we came in and punched them in the mouth …”
In a 28-7 win over Live Oak, McKneely had 22 carries for 84 yards and three touchdowns, but the Yellow Jackets really found their stride in a 35-28 overtime win over Walker the following week.
Denham rallied from a 20-7 deficit to force overtime, with Horne coming in at quarterback to lead the Yellow Jackets on the on the tying drive and McKneely scoring the game-winning touchdown on the first play of overtime.
“I was really excited,” McKneely said of going back to running back when Horne entered the game. “I kind of was like, ‘give me the ball.’ One of the plays, Jerry actually checked me down and threw me the ball.”
The Yellow Jackets stopped Walker’s Ja’Cory Thomas a yard short of the end zone on fourth down to end the game.
“That game was a highlight,” McKneely said. “I loved how we fought and came back at the end. We gave them a fight, and we won.”
Beard said getting McKneely back in the running back spot against Walker, and in other games down the stretch, was a big key to the team’s success.
“There’s no doubt a level of comfort coming out of the backfield as a running back was a lot greater than as a quarterback,” Beard said. “We got him back there back to being a running back when Horne was ready, and you could see a different level in his play. It just takes a lot off your mind. There’s a lot of stuff pre-snap that goes through your head as a quarterback – getting the call, the signal off the sideline and echoing it out, seeing what they give you, checking everything and looking at everything (instead of) being able to just get the call and you know where you’re going. You could just see there was a sense of comfort.”
The Yellow Jackets lost to Scotlandville to close out the regular season and traveled to face Central to open the playoffs, with McKneely rushing for 241 yards and four touchdowns in a 42-14 win.
“We were a playoff team that belonged there,” McKneely said. “We got the job done that night. It was a different atmosphere around, a different energy. It was a good night that night. We played ball. That helped our confidence. Going into the Ouachita game, we had more confidence than anything, and that’s all we wanted. We knew we belonged there …”
Denham Springs’ season ended the following week in a 20-14 loss to Ouachita Parish in which the Yellow Jackets lost three fumbles in the second half, including one that was returned 95 yards for a touchdown.
McKneely said the loss is still stinging for the team.
“It’s a whole different mindset,” he said. “It’s a whole different team, a whole different program. Next year’s going to be our year.”
“This team is a family,” McKneely continued. “We’ve been through a lot, so we can get through whatever.”