By JIMMY WIGFIELD
Saraland sophomore K.J. Lacey’s physical artistry is what fans see but he knows no successful quarterback can rely on that alone.
His mechanics, formed through an incessant desire to be great, give him distinct advantages, particularly his ability to throw effectively from different angles, shape his trajectories and having the footwork to avoid sacks — he was dropped just twice in 2022.
Spartans coach Jeff Kelly, who knows when to sculpt Lacey’s talents and when to put down the chisel, is thunderstruck by the skill of his quarterback, who will turn 16 in January.
“There are times where K.J. has to drop down and throw it behind a guy or under a rusher,” Kelly said. “I hadn’t seen a guy like him at any level who can do that and remain accurate and on time. But I don’t really work with (his release) — that’s all him. I don’t believe you mess much with a guy’s delivery. That’s one of the traits that makes him special.”
In addition to Kelly and QB Country founder David Morris, Lacey said he has worked with former Vanderbilt cornerback Torren McGaster, who owns Prime Elite Development in Daphne, to develop different release points modeled on Kansas City Chiefs All-Pro quarterback Patrick Mahomes, whom Lacey wants to emulate.
“It took a while to see the changes with the different slot throws and throwing from different angles,” said McGaster, who has helped train Lacey for the last three years. “He kept an open mind about the whole body of work. We wanted to open up his toolbox. I could see from day one he was something special, so I pretty much threw everything at him and put no safeties on it. It was countless hours, days and weeks of repetition and the accuracy part took a while.”
Lacey likes the comparison to Mahomes.
“A lot of people have given me compliments,” he said. “They would tell me I have good mechanics, even though I didn’t work on it. Then I started working on my craft. I really worked on it, throwing it in different slots. However I’ve got to get it around, I’ll get it there.”
Little seems to perturb Lacey, who defeats pass rushes with his sophisticated release and tendency to break tendencies.
“Most right-handed guys are more comfortable throwing on the run to the same side as his arm,” Kelly said. “He may be more comfortable going opposite of his arm, to his left. He gets his hips square.”
McGaster said Lacey is equipped to attack whatever he is confronted with.
“It’s being able to see what is coming at you and having the arsenal that no matter what the situation is, he can do it,” McGaster said.
Morris, who has helped mold Lacey since the third grade, said he’s astounded by Lacey’s prodigious arm, which can deliver the ball with a traditional motion on one play and be a geometric anomaly on the next.
“He’s got a lot of arm talent,” Morris said. “Usually, big-armed guys struggle with touch and accuracy but he’s worked a lot on that. He’s got rare ability and doesn’t have just one slot. Like Mahomes, he has a typical release point but when he gets outside of it, that’s when you see the magic.”
McGaster said Lacey is bound for greatness if he doesn’t lose his character and work ethic.
“He put the world on notice this season,” McGaster said. “I see him being one of the best quarterbacks in the nation. I keep telling him to not get caught up in all the accolades and just put his head down and work. He’s the most humble kid I’ve ever met. One day, I can see him winning the Heisman Trophy.”
‘Not young anymore’
Lacey is also fortunate to be surrounded by superb skill players in receiver Ryan Williams, running back Santae McWilliams and receiver C.D. Gill, all of whom are sophomores, plus a defense adept at takeaways and stoking the offense with the ball.
But Lacey has had to get used to safeties who are frightened Williams will get behind them.
“I think my favorite is the corner route or the post — the go ball,” Lacey said. “But now everyone tries to play too far back against us. That’s why we got real excited against Hillcrest when they came out and pressed us on the first play.”
The Patriots challenged Williams head-up with no safety help and he and Lacey made them pay with TD passes of 68 and 84 yards in the first quarter on the way to a 56-31 quarterfinal victory. Lacey completed 12 of 23 passes for 366 yards and four touchdowns.
That outcome, and many others like it, was the result of Kelly’s flexible offense and trust in Lacey.
“We don’t really change plays but he has a lot of leeway with run-pass options and full-field reads to attack in different ways within a single play,” Kelly said. “There’s a lot we’ll be able to go through on the board in the offseason to enable us to be even better next year, hopefully.”
Lacey is learning to be patient — “He throws a beautiful deep ball,” Kelly said — although Williams is one of the country’s most dangerous long threats.
“I know a couple of games I got a little too aggressive and threw it when I shouldn’t have,” Lacey said. “But the last few games, I took my checkdowns and I was just being really smart with the ball. … I’ll know where to go with it pre-snap. It comes naturally. I can find somebody really quick.”
Kelly knows he is seeing a remarkable treasure chest of capabilities.
“He’s got a perceptive eye to attack the defense, to anticipate the open window,” Kelly said. “He can throw guys open. He’s got great accuracy and puts the ball where he wants to. He knows how to be aggressive without being careless and not many quarterbacks can do that.”
Not many quarterbacks can do that and insist it’s not good enough.
“I want to get way more accurate and get my arm strength up and get better with leadership,” Lacey said. “I want to be a more vocal leader. We’re not going to be young any more next year.”