DARBY — Darby quarterback Nelson Smith demonstrated all of his best qualities as a football player in one play Friday in his team's 70-16 win against Troy.

And it came on an incomplete pass.

The senior signal caller had just delivered a deep ball to his younger brother, Preston Smith. It was the type of pass Nelson calls a "dime" — a tight-spiral that drops in over a defender — and it's a pass Nelson has nearly perfected this season.

The football, though, bounced off of Preston's left fingertips and fell to the grass at Darby's home field. The completion likely would have meant a Smith-to-Smith score. Instead it turned into a slight on an otherwise star-worthy six-total-touchdown performance for Nelson in just two and a half quarters of work.

The sophomore receiver, who had a step on his defender, was understandably frustrated. 

But 25 yards back at the line of scrimmage Nelson was already hollering at his younger brother to keep his head up and forget about the missed connection. Preston would later run for a touchdown in the third quarter.

"He’s just a great leader," said senior offensive lineman Conner Polson, who scored his first high school touchdown Friday after receiving a handoff from Nelson. "He takes control of a situation but he isn’t a jerk about it."

In fact, Nelson is downright nice. His words of encouragement aren't reserved to just his kin. The captain will hand out his extra pride stickers — small tokens players can put on their helmet as an award for a positive on-field play — to other teammates.

He's also the first to offer a helping hand out of a dog pile, and it doesn't matter what jersey someone's wearing. Nelson, who was an all-state linebacker last year for the Tigers and is also a standout rugby player in the Bitterroot, had a pair of sacks Friday against Troy and a handful of big-hit tackles. 

Each time, he popped up first from the turf and lifted up his foe.

"I just figured since I’m a captain I’ve gotta lead my team and the best way for me is to lead by example. I try to show the best sportsmanship I can when I’m out there," Nelson said.

Nelson has displayed both his leadership ability and skill set through Darby's five games this season. Statistically, he looks like an all-state quarterback at the Class C 8-man level.

Using the eye test, Nelson looks like a next-level football prospect.

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Nelson's 10-for-16, four-passing-touchdown performance Friday against Troy doesn't tell the full story of the type of passes the 6-foot, 180-pound senior was completing. Outside of one screen that senior wide receiver Jordan Anderson took 40 yards for a touchdown, all of Nelson's throws attacked down the field. 

The statistics back the anecdote.

Nelson has 17 touchdowns to just three interceptions and he's completed 65 of 101 passes for 947 yards this season. That's a clip of 14.5 yards per completion.

Nelson's YPC numbers would be good chunk in 11-man football and its 100-yard field. In 8-man football, with its 80-yard gridiron, those types of completions are devastating.

For comparison's sake, Hamilton quarterback Carson Rostad, Montana's reigning Gatorade Player of the Year in football, is averaging 12.5 yards per completion in Class A this season according to maxpreps.com

All 10 of Nelson's completions (and even some of his incompletions) on Friday confirmed Snavely's assertion. The most impressive of them might have been a 34-yard touchdown pass to Tanner Davis that split safety coverage and put the Tigers ahead of Troy 34-8 just before halftime. Nelson looked off coverage to a corresponding wheel route (one he hit earlier for a touchdown to Deric Parks) and drilled Davis on a post pattern in the middle of the field.

Davis bounced off the would-be tackler and ran the remaining 10 yards to pay dirt.

"I saw the safety over top, but I thought I could get the ball in there real fast," Smith explained of the throw. "I tried to throw a bullet in there and it connected."

Snavely summed it up simply.

"The pass was perfect. It was gorgeous."

It was a dime — the kind that Darby is going to need its senior captain to keep making through the final three games of the season.

***

The Tigers (3-2 overall, 3-2 in Western C 8-man) host two-time defending Class C 8-man champion Flint Creek next Friday. The Drummond-Philipsburg co-op sits at 4-2 in conference and is coming off a 56-12 win against Arlee.

But the Titans have shown some mortality this season, falling to unbeaten Clark Fork (6-0 overall) and 5-1 Thompson Falls. Still, it's a tough draw for Darby, particularly on homecoming week. It's notoriously a distraction-filled five school days.

"We have to focus at practice," Smith said. "But if we focus in practice, coaches are going to draw up a great game plan, and if we follow that game plan we’re going to be successful."

A loss isn't necessarily a death knell for Darby, but the Tigers likely need to take two of their next three games to clinch a playoff spot. After Darby's homecoming matchup against Flint Creek, the Tigers travel to face Charlo (2-4). The Vikings forfeited the remainder of their season last year keeping them out of the playoffs and opening the door for Darby's first playoff berth since the 1991-92 season.

The Tigers close with 5-1 St. Ignatius. It's a tough haul to the finish line of the regular season for Darby.

But with Smith behind center, the Tigers like their chances.

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