In the distance, the sky grows darker by the minute with the wind picking up in stride. Players arrive one by one, dressed mostly in workout clothes decorated by their high school’s logo or that of their previous college football commitment.
Jeremy Liggins strolls through the black chain link gate, wearing Ole Miss shorts, and begins chatting with some of his new teammates while stretching.
Demarkous and Jamel Dennis arrive soon after, grinning and cutting up.
A year ago it looked like the former Commodore trio would be starring at LSU and Itawamba Community College but because of a number of reasons — grades, namely — they’re in Booneville, preparing to represent NECC in the upcoming season.
After sitting out a year, the three, who won the only two MHSAA Class 4A State Championships in Lafayette High history, are just happy to be back on the practice field.
Head coach Ricky Smither drives by in his golf cart, set to start practice. He’s all smiles, too. Last February the long-time Tigers coach had whiffed at signing the ‘Dores and was worried he’d have to gameplan against them. Now, they’re on his practice field, listening to his orders as he bounces between positions.
“At that time when those guys were coming out, to me, those three guys were three of the bigger impact guys in the state. We recruited all three of them and didn’t end up getting a one,” he said in his office earlier in the day. “To get a second chance at recruiting them, that’s hard to come by and ended up landing all three of them.”
Smither said his staff kept in constant contact with the Dennis brothers when it became clear they wouldn’t qualify, while Liggins said he just liked the fit at NECC better after briefly attending Mississippi Gulf Coast C.C. last summer.
“We were fortunate to get these three back. We just stayed with them, stayed in touch with them, kept recruiting them, stayed in touch with mom and ended up getting a chance at them,” Smither said. “We jumped on it and here we are.”
The three joked that with their prior success it only made sense to reunite.
“We’ve been good since the seventh grade coming up together, so I don’t see why it’d be a big difference once we got here,” Liggins said, reclining in the bleachers at Tiger Stadium before practice. “We’ve all been together since middle school so you can say it’s getting the band back together.”
In Smither’s office there’s a dry erase board with name plates decorating a fluid depth chart. Crooked names adorn the board, some mismatched in color.
“Liggins” and “Dennis” are atop their positions at one of the defensive end positions and weak side linebacker.
The other “Dennis” plate is a bit further down, fourth behind three new teammates.
Liggins’ and Jamel’s spots could be written in Sharpie, but Smither expects to move his new running back to the top in a matter of days or weeks.
Although Liggins went through spring practice with the Tigers, his former teammates only recently began football activities at Northeast.
“We know there’s going to be a little learning curve with those guys, but I know they’ll be all right. They haven’t lost a step. They will definitely contribute, no doubt,” Smither said, acknowledging their year away from football. “The offense is a little more complicated than the defense so (Demarkous) has a little more to learn than his brother. (Jamel) can just get out there and play, where he has a lot to learn. He has to learn the whole fronts, linebackers, who to block, we’re signaling a lot of stuff. The stuff he’s having the most problems with is the pass blocking. He has all the routes and knows all the run plays.
“Once he learns what we’re doing. … it’s going to be hard to keep him off the field.”
Moving to DE
For Liggins, the move to Northeast doesn’t only mean putting on a new uniform. It means adapting to a completely new position.
The former quarterback will see some spot duty in shotgun and at tight end, but he’ll be used predominantly as a defensive end (in the last couple of weeks highly-touted prep tight ends A.J. Jackson and Ricky Parks joined Northeast after Jackson didn’t qualify academically for Ole Miss and Parks was dismissed from Auburn, aiding Liggins’ move to defense).
Smither is confident Liggins will not only hold his own on the depth chart at NECC, but much more than that in time.
“Jeremy is a different beast,” Smither said. “Our opinion, we think he’s an NFL defensive end. He’s probably the quickest 300-pounder off the ball that I’ve ever been around. When that ball is snapped he’s gone. His athletic ability is going to bring a new level to that position because he’s just athletic. With his ball skills we could move him to H-back and tight end and he’d probably be an NFL H-back or tight end.”
Smither added that Liggins’ “quick twitch” is next level.
“No doubt. He’s so explosive. Some kids are just born with it,” Smither said. “I guess you call it the ‘it’ factor. (Liggins, Jamel and Demarkous) just have that other step. I’m just thankful to God they’re here and we don’t have to play against them.”
Likewise, Liggins is confident he’ll be able to make a difference.
“As far as technique I feel like I’m good because I wasn’t coached with my defensive technique by another coach, so I came in like a new baby,” he said. “I didn’t have to re-learn anything because everything was new.”
The biggest adjustment for Liggins has been the physicality of playing with his hand in the dirt.
“I’m comfortable there but it was a big change going from quarterback to defense. At quarterback you’re not taking a lot of punishment on every play, but on defense you’re just banging heads every play. I’d say that’s the biggest change for me,” he said. “I’m just getting used to the soreness after every practice because you’re going to bump heads every play on defense.”
“It has slowed down a lot. I just about got it all on defense. After going through it in the spring, I had a few bumps but it’s smooth now.”
Having ballooned to around 300 pounds — Liggins is 290 pounds after tipping the scale at north of 310 pounds when he arrived in Booneville — Liggins’ days as one of the elite quarterbacks in the nation are probably behind him, but he’s OK with that.
During this particular practice, Liggins is often the first through drills. Sometimes he stops to ask his teammates or coaches extra questions regarding technique, but it’s clear he has committed himself to the change.
Once this season with the Tigers is over, he hopes to transfer to Ole Miss. He said he needs 12 hours in order to be admitted in Oxford but is taking 17 so he can work ahead.
Happy to be back
For the time being, however, Liggins and his former Commodore comrades are just happy to be back on the field.
“I feel good about it. I’m just ready for the first game to get here,” Jamel said, leaning back in the bleachers between his brother and Liggins. “The only things that are on my mind are football and school.”
The dark clouds finally catch up with the Tigers. Rain begins to fall, light at first before being replaced by heavy drops and lighting. The players scatter for cover, hopping into their nearby vehicles.
Practice is prematurely halted for the day, but the three former teammates, reunited after spending a year in football purgatory, are finally getting started.