Creston’s ascension to the No. 2 ranking in the state with a 5-0 record despite a challenging schedule has come with a new look.
The team that featured Brennan Hayes as the fourth-leading rusher in the state last year with 1,338 yards and 11 touchdowns during a run to the playoffs has transformed into the leading Class 3A passing team in the state, with Hayes becoming one of the state’s top receiving threats along with a bevy of other talented receivers.
Meanwhile, Hayes is still a ground-game threat, ranking eighth in Class 3A with 861 yards in five games, averaging 7.0 yards per carry.
Creston is in its first year of separate platoons of offensive and defensive players under head coach Brian Morrison, and has adopted a fast-paced no-huddle offense designed to stress opposing defenses into making mistakes. Creston’s average score to date is 36.2 to 21.6, despite playing three straight Class 4A opponents to open the season in Winterset, Lewis Central and Ballard before sailing 50-21 at Carroll.
Last week the Panthers picked up a huge district win in holding off defending state 3A champion Harlan, 25-22.
A coaching staff already filled with experienced coaches and former players in the program got a boost earlier this year. Former ADM head coach Garrison Carter, who had a 79-42 record as a head coach at four schools including a state semifinal appearance in last year’s 10-2 ADM season, joined Morrison as a volunteer assistant. (ADM ended Creston’s five-game winning streak last year with a 38-7 victory.)
Garrison and wife Jessica (Tamerius) Carter, a Creston native, had decided to move closer to family in Creston as early as last February after having twins (a son and daughter) join their family that already included a 3-year-old son. After being hired as a special education teacher in Creston for this school year in a contract that began July 1, Carter resigned his position at ADM on May 12.
Soon thereafter, a news story broke on Des Moines television stations that Carter had been accused of misuse of funds from the football booster club, the Gridiron Club. Those funds were repaid and no criminal charges were filed. Creston honored its contract while administrators said they were following developments in the case, and Carter said he learned from the mistake and looked forward to starting a new life in Creston.
“Obviously leaving ADM brought to light a mistake I made and that I am not proud of,” Carter said. “I have tried to own my mistakes and I am so grateful for this opportunity at Creston. I can’t change the past, but I am trying to change the future. My goal every day is to show up and work as hard as I possibly can to make everything I touch better. My family and I love Creston and are excited to raise our family here.”
Morrison said he began having conversations with Carter about having a volunteer role with the team — there were no paid positions open — shortly after he was hired as a special education teacher at Creston Community Middle School. Morrison, as Creston’s defensive coordinator, liked some of the elements of the ADM offense he opposed under Carter’s direction.
“It was probably a two-week process in finalizing what role he would have for us,” Morrison said. “Before school got out I called the kids together and introduced him, and he talked to the team. Our staff was on board with it.”
Carter said his current role as offensive coordinator, working closely with offensive coaches Brandon Phipps, Casey Tanner, Nate Haley and Alex Tamerius, is more involved than he originally expected. But, he said it’s been more enjoyable than any of his previous 14 years in coaching.
“After I got hired here, I told Brian that I would be around and when the fall came around it would probably be hard for me to not be involved in some way,” Carter said. “If there’s any capacity I can help out, I’m willing. It kind of snowballed from there. After about three weeks of talking with him, I was the offensive coordinator. Brian has basically given me full autonomy with the offense, so it’s been a perfect match.”
Two key elements that are direct influences from Carter’s previous programs are platooning and the quick-paced, no-huddle offense. It’s made for more efficient coaching and player development, according to Morrison.
On the defensive side, Morrison is coordinator and inside linebackers coach. Jon Thomson has the outside linebackers, Steve Shantz coaches defensive linemen, and Chad Briley directs the secondary. Briley had that role in the past, but also worked with receivers and was offensive coordinator after Darrell Frain moved on to Riverside as their head coach and athletic director.
“Chad has always been our secondary coach, but it as tough also being the offensive coordinator,” Morrison said. “This really benefits our defense to have him full-time with us on defense. What he sees in the press box for us really helps on game night. I ask him about coverages, we talk pressures with coach Shantz, and it’s really been a good mix on both sides.”
It also allows for a college-like sideline for the players on game night. When the defense is on the field, Carter often meets with the entire offense in front of large television monitors showing previous plays on the HUDL system. They can make instant corrections. Likewise, Morrison has access to the defensive unit when the offense is on the field.
“Before it was a case of having to catch a player whenever you could, if he was also playing offense,” Morrison said. “This is more efficient. Plus, we’re practicing together every day and going against the first offensive unit, so the kids compete like crazy and it’s fun for them. We have a big senior class and we knew we could do it. Could we do it every year? Probably not. But it’s working for us this year.”
Carter began implementing the platoon system at ADM in 2021 and saw how the benefits manifested later in the season.
“Platooning cuts your roster in half, so automatically your depth is thinner,” Carter acknowledged. “At ADM we knew we were starting a bunch of sophomores that first year. But, if you believe in your coaches, and we have phenomenal coaches here, then you take all of those guys who might be borderline starters, and you have twice as much time with them to get them ready to play at a high level. What sold me on it was when a coach told me you don’t have to be the best team in the state week one, we had to be the best team in the state week nine.”
Carter’s goal is to put pressure on a defense that may include some two-way players with minimal rest between plays. Each play is quickly signaled to the offense as they approach the line of scrimmage, with a goal of using only seven seconds of the play clock before the center snap.
Harlan coach Todd Bladt was asked if he learned anything about his team after Friday’s 25-22 loss. Besides saying there were too many mistakes and penalties, he also remarked, “We have to get in better shape.”
That’s music to Carter’s ears, because the concept was evidently working against a premier program in the state. While Creston’s variety of plays isn’t much different than in the past, the multiple formations and player shifts and motions before the snap requires quick communication among defensive players. It’s organized chaos in motion.
Morrison remembers the challenge of preparing his own defense when the Panthers faced ADM.
“Prepping for an offense like this in a week is difficult in where he positions kids, the formations they show, and all of the checks and adjustments it requires,” Morrison said. “Now on top of that they’re playing fast, and it has the defense thinking instead of reacting.”
Carter said all it takes is for one of 11 players on defense to slip up, and an opportunity for a big play can develop. Using an all-state running back like Hayes in open space as a receiver has been a new aspect of the attack, which already had big-play potential with quarterback Cael Turner and receivers such as Brandon Briley and Josh Schaefer. Others, like Tyler Riley, Weston Trapp and Casen Dryden, have contributed as well.
When Carroll loaded the tackle box to thwart Hayes as a runner, Hayes got open for a long touchdown pass. It also happened against Ballard when Hayes had 210 yard receiving and two touchdown receptions.
“You take what defenses are giving you,” Carter said. “If Brennan motions out of the backfield to the numbers, he goes from being a number three receiver with inside linebacker responsibility, to a one or two receiver that a cornerback is responsible for. They are relying on 17-year-old kids to pass that off and communicate that in two seconds. And, Brennan is so good after the catch. He’s never going to go down against that first secondary guy. In space he’s a real weapon.”
Carter said some defenses have taken the approach of trying to stop Creston like teams defended ADM last year — containing quarterback Aiden Flora and running back Brevin Doll on the edges, and make Flora beat you passing. They were both tremendous athletes with the ball.
“Here, Cael Turner can beat you throwing over the top, and some teams haven’t adjusted yet,” Carter said. “Cael is the most accurate quarterback I’ve ever had, and he makes great decisions.”
Turner leads Class 3A in passing with 1,353 yards while completing 64.7% of his passes with no interceptions this season along with 15 touchdowns. Hayes is third in receiving with 508 yards and Briley is 11th with 390 yards. Those two and tight end Josh Schaefer each have 20 catches.
“Against Harlan Cael took off and ran for a big play after his first two (passing) options weren’t there,” Carter said. “That just puts even more pressure on the defense. When you have a great athlete at quarterback you can do a lot of things.”
The offensive line has held up as well, providing Turner time to survey the field and roll out to buy more time.
“It all starts with the line and they are the reason we’ve been able to do some of those things downfield,” Carter said. “They’ve given us the time to do that. I haven’t always had that.”
Many of the elements of the passing game and no-huddle signaling came from one of Carter’s guest speakers at a coaching clinch he hosted at Honey Creek when he coached at Washington. Rich Hargitt, a high school coach in Idaho, has written books on coaching the “Air Raid” offense that was employed by coach Art Briles at Baylor.
“We spent like three days together and I learned a ton of no-huddle stuff from him,” Carter said. “That’s where I got the tempo stuff. I like surrounding myself with quality people and learning. I had three former successful head coaches on my staff at ADM and just learned from them as we worked together.”
Carter, also the team’s receivers coach, said there’s strong chemistry in the offensive coaching staff because each has a unique strength that helps the overall product. Carter was a high school quarterback at Centerville and played receiver at Simpson College.
“Brandon Phipps has a background at quarterback here and is the best I’ve ever had at seeing things in the pass game and attacking defenses,” Carter said. “Casey Tanner is great with the linemen and the run game. We think a lot alike, and Nate Haley coached O-line and D-line at Graceland and he’s a big part of it. Alex Tamerius came over from the defense to coach running backs. He played linebacker in college so he understands what those guys are being taught to read keys. It’s a great staff.”
So, a past opponent is now helping the Panthers reach new heights.
“Brian and I were on opposite sidelines going at each other, and now we’re like best friends,” Carter said. “I’m so thankful to him for allowing me to be a part of his staff! Great leaders have no ego and that’s definitely him!”
“Overall it’s been a really good transition,” Morrison said. “The kids love him. He’s a hard worker and very detail-oriented. I’ve been impressed with how the kids have responded to everything.”