By JIMMY WIGFIELD
There is no truth to the rumor K.J. Lacey stood up in his crib while in the hospital nursery, scanned the room in seconds, gripped a cold baby bottle and ripped a perfect spiral over the hands of an onrushing doctor into a sink of warm water without creating a ripple.
But there was a time Lacey could throw the football only 15 yards. Of course, he was just 4 years old at the time and already making those who saw him pick their eyeballs off the ground.
“I used to play running back and then I got switched to quarterback at the park,” Lacey said. “Everybody told me about how I could throw the ball real far. They’d tell me, ‘You’re going to be the next Tom Brady.’”
But why settle for that when you can be K.J. Lacey?
After one year as Saraland High School’s starting quarterback, the 6-foot-1, 175-pound Lacey, who turns 16 in January, is rapidly developing into one of the nation’s premier high school quarterbacks. As a sophomore, he completed 64% of his passes for 3,177 yards, 40 touchdowns and only 5 interceptions while winning the state championship.
“The things he did this year are impressive regardless of his age or grade,” Spartans coach Jeff Kelly said. “If he was a senior, we’d be talking about him the same way.”
Except by 2025, when Lacey is a senior, there is no way to comprehend how much bigger and better he could be or how many Power 5 offers he’ll have.
Lacey received his first SEC offer from South Carolina during the pregame warmups for the Class 6A Super 7 finals against Mountain Brook at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
“I just tried to stay focused,” Lacey said. “I didn’t want to celebrate.”
There was plenty of time for that after a 38-17 victory, getting fit for a state championship ring and an escalation of offers from Auburn, Ole Miss and Florida State.
“The past couple of days have been fun,” Lacey said last week.
Even more gratifying times seem inevitable in a period of perpetual sunrises for Lacey.
“His recruiting took off,” Kelly said. “College coaches understand how bright his future could be.”
After Lacey got the South Carolina offer, Kelly tweeted his congratulations and added: “America, remember this name!”
The founder of Mobile-based QB Country and famed quarterback mentor David Morris — who has tutored Eli Manning, Georgia’s Stetson Bennett, Arkansas’ K.J. Jefferson, Duke’s Riley Leonard, North Carolina’s Drake May and NFL quarterbacks Jake Fromm and Gardner Minshew, among others — said Lacey is breaking new ground as the epitome of a modern quarterback.
“He can throw it as good as a lot of guys in college right now,” Morris said. “His arm is NFL (caliber) right now in terms of pure arm strength. He is 100 percent can’t miss. He’s as good as this state has ever seen and he’s not done developing. He’s ahead of his years from an anticipation and a pure arm standpoint. … Nothing is guaranteed, of course, and he’s got to stay healthy, stay out of trouble, stay humble and continue to work as hard as he has in the past. If he does that, the sky’s the limit.
“He’s not even a once-in-a-decade player. I’ve been doing this since 2004 and, at this age, there’s never been one like him.”
All the tools
Lacey also played basketball until deciding to dedicate himself to football about three years ago “when I realized I could throw the football better than most,” he said.
With quiet aplomb, Lacey has gone about checking off the boxes on the list of qualities the top quarterbacks have.
He’s improvisational, a leader by example, avoids bad plays and especially sacks, gets the offense into good plays, reads defenses with the ease of a how-to manual on boiling water, throws well from multiple angles, is driven to be great and never satisfied with staying the same.
Lacey’s arm strength, accuracy and a quick release evocative of a rattlesnake strike are his primary tools for dissolving defenses.
“K.J. at his best has got one of the quickest releases I’ve ever seen,” Kelly said. “Between the time he makes the decision to throw the ball to it leaving his hand, it’s next-level fast.”
It’s also something Lacey said he precisely honed for two arduous years.
“I’ve worked to make it better,” Lacey said. “I used to cup the ball, then I straightened out my wrist and it got better. I had to fix that.”
Kelly, himself a star quarterback at Southern Miss who had a brief NFL career, could not imagine performing at the same level when he was a sophomore at Citronelle High.
“I was trying to get lined up correctly and just run the play,” he said. “I wasn’t that far along; it wasn’t even close. But the game has changed so much. The amount of knowledge and skill development kids are exposed to now, it allows you to do more now at an earlier age.”
Morris said Lacey has the mind of a veteran player and plays fearlessly.
“Usually with a young starter, there’s a process with the ability to play on time with the clock in your head and throw the football without hesitation,” Morris said. “With a 10th-grader, it usually takes the whole season to feel comfortable and have confidence in doing that. With K.J., it was there from game one and that’s a credit to K.J. and Jeff and (Saraland receivers coach) Brett (Boutwell). He learns quickly. He loves to know what’s going on.”
Reaching for greatness
Lacey has the benefit of tutelage from Kelly and Morris, both of whom are former college quarterbacks at Southern Miss and Ole Miss, respectively, and former Vanderbilt cornerback Torren McGaster, who owns Prime Elite Development in Daphne. Lacey has privately worked on his mechanics with Morris since third grade and with McGaster for the last three years.
“The game has evolved and he is an evolved player,” McGaster said.
The modern game is built around speed, spreading the field and throwing the ball, and the quarterback must make more decisions than ever to quickly find the open receiver among many options and complex coverages.
“He’s got great instincts,” Morris said of Lacey. “There are quarterbacks who have book smarts and can tell you all about the coverages and then there are the quarterbacks with street smarts who have the incredible instincts to see space and take what the defense gives you. He’s both.”
Asked if he adjusted his system to Lacey or Lacey to his system, Kelly, who had leaned back in his chair and propped his feet on his desk, surveyed the question and his answer with care.
“It wouldn’t be very smart to ask anybody to do what he’s not good at but I haven’t found much he’s not good at,” Kelly said.
Some of that can be coached and some is God-given.
“He’s a very smart kid — he picks up new concepts quickly,” said Kelly, who recalled the moment he realized Lacey was perhaps peerless. Naturally, it involved wide receiver Ryan Williams, who has already committed to Alabama and could be the state’s first sophomore Mr. Football after catching 24 of Lacey’s 40 TD passes.
“It was the first game against Daphne,” Kelly said. “He threw a deep over (route) to Ryan with a guy right in his face. He was off platform for the throw and he threaded it over two or three defenders for about a 30-yard gain. That is the first time I saw a glimpse of it. That seems like a long time ago.”
Lacey said he is going to take his time deciding where to play college football but in the state championship game he wore an Alabama bracelet on his right wrist and not just because he was born in Tuscaloosa.
“I’d like to get an Alabama offer,” he said. “I want to stay together with Ryan. We’ve talked about that. Whatever I get, I’m thankful for. I’ll go where I fit in the best.”
Staying in front
After finishing 14-1 and capturing a Blue Map with a team that will return 18 starters in 2023, including Lacey and Williams, Saraland will wear an even larger target the next two years but Kelly is relying on Lacey’s unflagging work habits and leadership to squash complacency and the opposition.
“He’s a great leader,” Kelly said. “His teammates gravitate to him. He has a quiet confidence without being cocky. He’s a gym rat. He loves to work on his craft in the weight room, on the field or getting extra work outside of school. He’s not wired to coast. If we told him we’re going to have a three-hour practice today, he’d be tremendously excited about it. They all would.”
That’s why Kelly isn’t concerned about carrying a bull’s eye.
“That’s not a big deal,” Kelly said. “We’ve always had that. But if we stay the same, somebody will catch us. There are people with the motivation to come knock us off. This could be the most challenging season for us as coaches and as a team. 2022 was awesome but that won’t matter. A lot of people are patting our guys on the back and the biggest trap is to sit there and listen to it. We’ve got to flush that and get better.”
Lacey plays much older and more accomplished than most other 16-year-olds on the planet but still has much to learn, including how to file all the flattery. But those closest to him aren’t worried.
“He’s beginning to come into his own and he will continue to grow,” Kelly said. “He’s not going to be content to be where he is at the moment. He will continue to chase excellence in all parts of his game.”
As diamonds are born of pressure, many want to see if Lacey will sparkle if he must drive the Spartans 99 yards in the final two minutes or rally them from 21 points back to win.
“I’d just come out and be calm going through the drive,” Lacey said. “Now, if we have to do it, I think we’d go out and win. But I’d rather stay in front.”
Lacey is good at getting there and staying there.
“He’s the catalyst,” Kelly said. “We’ve talked about that — he’s got to be the field general. He does a good job being patient when he has to. The guys have confidence he’ll make the play and not force the ball. He’s also an encourager on the sideline when things aren’t going well. He’ll be the first to come off the field and say, ‘It’s my fault,’ even though it might not have been. He has a short memory.”