NEW PALESTINE — On the football field, New Palestine’s Alex Neligh and Duke Blackwell personify synchronized precision. Calm and collected in the face of nearly any obstacle, the unflappable quarterback and wide receiver duo makes its living by flustering others.
That changed for a moment though, as they stood on the Dragons practice field earlier this week.
Presented with a random tongue-in-cheek question, the tandem, which continues to systematically rewrite the program’s record books, found itself in a conundrum.
What all-time great quarterback-wide receiver tandem are you two guys most like?
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“I don’t really know,” Neligh said.
“We’ve never really talked about it,” Blackwell chimed in. “I’m probably more like Wes Welker because he never got deep balls.”
“I don’t really want to be compared to Tom Brady, though,” Neligh quipped while sharing a quick laugh with his No. 1 wide receiver. “I’m a big fan of Aaron Rodgers.”
“I’m sticking with Welker,” Blackwell said.
If one thing is certain, there are few donning Dragons’ crimson and white that aren’t admirers of the Neligh-Blackwell connection, regardless of who they might remind onlookers of while igniting the scoreboard on Shepler Field.
A microcosm of the whole around Kelso Stadium where the former Class 4A state champions are building upon the school’s best season in school history with a 4-0 start, the twosome has been indisputably prolific.
Last week, Neligh became the first Dragon in program history to surpass 5,000 yards in total offense with 217 yards passing and four touchdowns against Mt. Vernon. Rushing for two more scores and 165 yards, Neligh now has 5,174.
More impressive, however, this is only the 6-foot-2 senior’s second year starting at quarterback.
“When I first got the job, you could tell that freshmen group had a lot of talent but more than anything they didn’t take plays off,” New Palestine head coach Kyle Ralph reminisced on first seeing the Class of 2015. “I remember seeing tape on Alex and thinking, this kid has a chance to be the quarterback of the future. He definitely had the talent to do it, and Duke was a really great athlete.
“Both of them still needed some coaching but you could see the potential. It was a matter of how hard they were going to work to meet it. Fortunately, they’ve worked incredibly hard to get to it.”
On a week-by-week basis, or so it seems, the two repeatedly prove Ralph right while replacing “potential” with the label of “all-time best.”
At 5-10, Blackwell started his varsity career an eager learner as a sophomore in 2013. Playing along side, then senior standout, Tyler Walden, who ranks first in career receiving yards with 2,134, he caught a modest 17 passes for 266 yards and three touchdowns.
What didn’t show up in the box score was what Blackwell compiled in IQ while taking note of Walden’s approach.
Blackwell went from focusing on one position to them all, dissecting the team’s offense inside and out to maximize his involvement no matter what formation, play call or where he lined up for the Dragons.
”As a junior you saw him embrace that, understand the concepts,” Ralph said. “That’s what made Tyler great, and I think Duke understood that. If he wanted to maximize his potential in the offense, he had to know what everyone was doing all the time. Now, he’s mastered the system. That’s what makes him such a great player and so hard to stop.”
As the team’s top receiving threat through its 15-0 state championship run last fall, Blackwell set career highs with 824 yards on 37 catches, 10 touchdowns and a game-high 130 yards in the title game at Lucas Oil Stadium.
His single-season numbers cemented him as fifth-best all-time and with 210 yards already this year, he’s second on the career list just behind Walden.
Blackwell is on course to become the team’s career receiving touchdown leader with 18 so far (five this season). Walden owns the mark with 22 through 2011-13.
“Records are meant to be broken,” Blackwell said. “If we do become that good, and then someone else does break it, congratulations to them, but we don’t think about it. We just play our hearts out for this team. We play for each other.”
For many of the seniors, they’ve shared the same gridiron since the first grade. Neligh and Blackwell came up together through the New Palestine Cadet Football League and in-school feeder programs.
Blackwell was a quarterback until the fifth grade when he shifted over to wingback before eventually become the reliable slot receiver he is today.
Neligh’s course was slightly more unorthodox.
”I used to play lineman until the fifth grade. I was a guard,” he said. “I started playing quarterback in the sixth grade.”
“Taller and a little heavy” back then, Neligh laughs, the future signal caller’s appreciation for blocking began to take shape from the experience and blossomed once he became the understudy to Blake Luker as a sophomore.
Playing the Rodgers role to Luker’s Brett Favre, the underclassman watched as his predecessor rolled to a 2,469-yard, 33-touchdown and 239-completion season in 2013.
It made an immediate impact.
”He was always a huge role model for me. He showed me the ropes and what being an amazing quarterback really takes,” Neligh said. “The hard work he put in kind of set the tone for my junior and senior years. I saw what I needed to do to have success in this program and in the state.
”He was one of the best leaders I’ve been around. It meant the world to have him to look up to.”
At his current rate, Neligh could end up the one future quarterback hopefuls strive to be.
Tied with Luker with 40 career passing touchdowns and breaking his mentor’s previous record (64) for career total offensive touchdowns at 68, Neligh is only 24 yards from supplanting him (2,469) on the career passing yards list.
With another 352 passing yards, Neligh will become No. 1 ahead of Justin Plummer (3,610 yards, 1997-99).
As dangerous as he is tossing around the pigskin, he’s equally as daunting as a rusher, racking up 1,185 yards and 19 touchdowns a year ago.
While playing his part in toppling the program’s 30-year-old record for consecutive regular-season wins with 22 straight, Neligh is up to nine rushing touchdowns and 669 yards to go with 736 passing.
As they admit, none of this would be possible without several factors.
They give praise to the upperclassmen leadership on the offensive line, countless hours working on their timing together and with the offense, a balanced attack provided by senior running back Nick Brickens and a stingy defense (8.8 points per game surrendered).
“I don’t think either one of those guys wanted to live in anyone’s shadow. They wanted to make their own footprints on our program, and I’m really proud about how both of them have done it,” Ralph said.
“If they do achieve these feats, I think both of those guys will credit the other guys around them. You have to have all the things in the right direction to get some of these records, and that’s what makes them great kids, how humble they are.
”But honestly some of (those records) are pretty unfathomable. They’re out there.”
2: Duke Blackwell’s all-time career ranking with 1,300 yards receiving. Tyler Walden (2011-13) is first with 2,134.
68: Alex Neligh’s career total offensive touchdowns scored, ranking his first all-time in school history.
1: Ranked first in career total offense, Alex Neligh has amassed 5,174 yards. He is the first Dragon in history to eclipse 5,000.
40: Alex Neligh is tied with Blake Luker (2011-13) with 40 career passing touchdowns.
28: In 2014, Alex Neligh threw for 28 passing touchdowns in a single season to rank him third all time.
4: Alex Neligh is currently ranked fourth on the school’s career passing list with 3,258 yards. He is 352 yards away from overtaking Justin Plummer (1997-99) for first.
18: Duke Blackwell has hauled in 15 touchdown receptions since the 2014 opener. He has 18 total in his career, which is four away from tying Tyler Walden’s all-time 22.
130: Duke Blackwell’s top-receiving game of 130 yards was set in the Class 4A state title game against New Prairie in five catches.
3: Duke Blackwell tied the Class 4A and overall state finals record with three touchdown receptions during last year’s state championship game.
15: The Dragons’ fastest scoring drive this season spanned two plays and 42 yards in 15 seconds with Neligh connecting with Blackwell for a 12-yard TD.
8: Blackwell set a career high for receptions with eight last week against Mt. Vernon. He finished with 112 yards and two touchdowns.