The year 1994 carries a special meaning for Justice Liggins and a number of John Tyler football players, past and present.
JT won the school’s last state championship in 1994, the same year most of the current team members were born. Liggins, who was born four days after the 1994 team defeated Arlington in the semifinals and three days before a state title victory over Austin Westlake, feels the timing is just right for another championship.
“(Most of us) were born in ’94; why not win state in ’12,” said Liggins, who turns 18 on Friday. “It kind of fits. I just think that’s something special. They made their mark and have been remembered for history. It hadn’t been done in a while, so we’re trying to get that back started.”
The school’s most-recent titlists serve as motivation, as well as an offseason full of turnover. Despite a team returning 17 starters from a state semifinalist edition, former JT coach Dereck Rush accepted a job at Conroe Oak Ridge. Rush’s new team finished 1-9.
Meanwhile the Lions, with nine new coaches on staff, find themselves one win from playing for a state championship.
“Everyone who left in the spring with the coaching changes, we’re trying to make them regret everything,” Liggins said. “We’ve got a lot to prove.”
Starting with district play, the JT offense shifted into fifth gear. JT never scored more than 35 points in non-district. The Lions have hit the 35-point mark the last nine games straight. Along the way, JT set a new school record with 77 points in a bi-district win over Waxahachie.
“We’re playing as a team, trying to take it one game at a time,” Liggins said. “We’re focusing on this fifth round. Last year we got caught up in state. We learned to take one game at a time and focus on the task at hand.”
The JT offense features a plethora of weapons, with Liggins featured among a group including all-state talents at quarterback (Greg Ward) and receiver (Fred Ross), and a 1,000-yard receiver in Darion Flowers. Five JT receivers have more than 250 yards.
“You have playmakers left and right. And the offensive line is giving Greg enough time to make plays. The receivers are stepping up and playing their roles, and understanding the true concept of the offense.”
Liggins (6-1, 190) mixes size and speed, enough to warrant a handful of offers from FBS schools, including Northwestern State, Southeastern Louisiana and Wyoming. With 47 receptions for 558 yards and six touchdowns, Liggins ranks third on the team in all three categories behind Ross (75-1,448, 21 TDs) and Flowers (58-984, 8 TDs).
“I’m just trying to be that playmaker,” said Liggins, who lines up far wide at the X position. “When Fred is getting double-teamed, and if (Flowers) can’t get anywhere in the middle, you have to have someone else to go to. They try to sleep on me and I try to let them know they’ve got another receiver outside.
Liggins helped push the “new era” slogan now commonplace for the 2012 Lions. At the same time, another movement — the “YAC squad” — started for the offensive skill players under the direction of coordinator and assistant head coach Antoine Bush.
“YAC” stands for yards after the catch, describing JT’s mentality to extend plays following receptions. All JT players share the load blocking, catching and running the ball.
“We just want to be consistent and put points on the board,” said Liggins, who plans to wait until near National Signing Day to make his college decision. “I believe if we’re scoring, it gives the defense the momentum to make another stop.”
Liggins played a key role on JT’s 7-on-7 team that won a national championship in July. JT blew out Denton Guyer 40-9 in one tournament during the summer passing circuit. JT takes on Guyer in Friday’s semifinals.
“We see it like it’s 7 on 7. It’s a different story in pads,” said Liggins, who has 76 receptions for 835 yards in two seasons on varsity. “But we got to see what kind of skill and athletic ability they had. I just think if we play John Tyler football, Cujo football, it’s something we can pull away.”
LIONS’ TALES: Four JT players who left the Lions’ win over Frisco Centennial with different injuries last week in the state quarterfinals all returned to practice: linebacker Richard Gipson, center Chris Starling, left tackle Emmanuel Terrazas and quarterback Greg Ward. All are expected to play on Friday. Tickets for Friday’s game between JT and Denton Guyer at the Midlothian Multi-Purpose Stadium can be purchased Thursday (8 a.m.-4 p.m.) and Friday (8 a.m.-1 p.m.) at the Tyler ISD athletic office and also at T&T Lewis (903 W. Martin Luther King Jr., Blvd.) during regular business hours. JT will be the home team and wear its white jerseys. Midlothian’s stadium seats 8,000, including 3,500 on the visitor’s side.