Jelani Guerrero admitted he had some initial doubts.
He’d been a running back for his first three seasons on the Archbishop Murphy High School football team. He’d never played wide receiver before.
And his coaches wanted to move him to receiver for his senior year.
“I was kinda iffy about (the) position change,” Guerrero said. “… I did have my doubts, because it’s a position I never played before.”
Looking back now, there’s no doubt it was the right move.
Guerrero is the Snohomish County leader in receiving yardage, with 29 catches for 738 yards and seven touchdowns through the first six weeks of the season. The 5-foot-11, 185-pound senior has topped 100 yards receiving in four of the Wildcats’ six games, including a season-high 202 yards in a win over Sehome.
Guerrero has been a big-play machine, scoring touchdowns of 87, 83, 75, 69, 66 and 40 yards. He’s averaging 123 yards receiving per game and an absurd 25.4 yards per catch.
“We wanted to just get him out in the open and use his athleticism and his hands,” Archbishop Murphy coach Josh Jansen said. “And he’s really responded to that new role well.”
Guerrero was Archbishop Murphy’s second-leading rusher during this past spring’s abbreviated season, with 229 yards and two touchdowns in four games.
But with the Wildcats transitioning from their traditional Wing-T offense to a more pass-oriented spread attack, Jansen said it made sense to move Guerrero from running back to slot receiver. Archbishop Murphy is in its first full season with a spread offense, after making the change for the final two games of the spring campaign.
“We wanted to get him out on the perimeter and playing in the slot more, so we can give him the ball multiple different ways from that position,” Jansen said. “… Jelani embraced it with his arms wide open. He is a ‘Yes, coach, no, coach’ kind of kid. He’s a team player. He’s one of our captains. And he really embraced the move and has excelled.”
Guerrero also has been a four-year starter on defense, where he excels at free safety. He has three interceptions this season, including two in the Wildcats’ victory over Sehome.
Jansen said Guerrero’s experience as a defensive back helped his transition to receiver.
“He’s an incredible defensive player in the secondary, so he knows how to read defensive backs’ hips and understand what coverage they’re in and run to the open space,” Jansen said. “His skill on defense has definitely helped him. … He knows how to get open.”
Guerrero has meshed his sharp football IQ with explosive speed and trusted pass-catching ability.
“He has probably the best hands I’ve seen in a long time,” Archbishop Murphy senior quarterback Colton Johnson said. “And he’s quick. He’s fast.”
One of Guerrero’s most impressive plays this season came two weeks ago against Blaine, when he scored a 75-yard touchdown on the final play of the first half.
With time for only one more play before halftime, Johnson heaved a deep pass downfield. There were three defenders in the vicinity, but that wasn’t enough. Guerrero made a tough catch in traffic, escaped an attempted tackle and then outran one of the defenders the final 25 yards for a game-changing score.
“If I don’t (have) anywhere to go with the ball, I know I’ve always got him,” Johnson said. “It’s just amazing.”
In a season full of highlight-reel plays by Guerrero, another one that stood out was his go-ahead 66-yard touchdown in the third quarter of a Week 2 win over Fife. Guerrero hauled in a deep pass around the 30-yard line and started to run left, but then cut back to the right, slipped out of an attempted ankle tackle and raced into the end zone.
“What he does after the catch is, I mean, it’s crazy,” Johnson said. “He does his thing, gets extra yards and just makes plays.”
Guerrero has scored seven of his team’s 18 offensive touchdowns. He’s accounted for 45% of his team’s total yardage. And on defense, he’s come up with three of his team’s five interceptions.
“He’s just a competitor,” Jansen said. “I mean, the guy has an amazing heart and he’s a fierce competitor. And you can’t really coach that. You either have that or you don’t.”
With Guerrero leading the way, Archbishop Murphy is battling for a state playoff berth out of the ultra-tough Northwest Conference.
The Wildcats (3-3, 1-1 Northwest Conference 2A) are one of six teams from the cutthroat league that have been ranked in the Class 2A state poll at some point this season. However, the Northwest Conference has just two berths to this year’s 2A state playoffs.
As a result, essentially all three of Archbishop Murphy’s remaining games are de facto playoff contests. The Wildcats face 2A ninth-ranked Burlington-Edison on Saturday, followed by 2A third-ranked Lynden on Oct. 22 and Lakewood on Oct. 29.
If Archbishop Murphy manages to run the table and advance to state, Guerrero likely will be a major reason why.
And so will the decision to move him to receiver.
“My coaches trusted me and believed in me and told me to play my game,” Guerrero said. “I put in work all offseason. And the last five (or) six weeks, it’s really shown that I’m able to play wherever my team really needs me and I’m able to excel.”