It won’t be easy telling the story of Paul Scruggs, football player, in words – because nobody wants to say the words. Not yet. Not until he proves it.
So try digesting this story in the giggles, gasps, pauses and stares I saw the other day at a Southport High football practice.
Like, the first play I saw. Literally walked into Perry Stadium, home of the Cardinals, and saw a rangy receiver wearing No. 11 take a defensive back into the middle of the field – then cut the other way, toward the back of the end zone, where he chased down Southport quarterback Luke Johnston’s spiral for a one-handed touchdown catch.
Someone gasps out loud. I realize that someone is me. Then I look back at the quarterback, at Johnston – who threw for 3,228 yards and 28 touchdowns last season – and he’s giggling. I still don’t know who’s wearing No. 11, but I can guess. He’s jogging back to the huddle with the ball glued to his enormous left hand.
A Southport parent is standing next to me. He’s here to watch his son, Josh Campbell, a sophomore center. I’m here to watch Scruggs. I gesture to No. 11 and get out just two words:
Is that …
“Yup,” says Rob Campbell.
Oh my, I say.
* * *
Paul Scruggs is a basketball player. Probably you knew that. As a sophomore last season he averaged 17.3 points, 7.3 rebounds and 5.7 assists. He’s generally ranked among the top 25 players nationally in the class of 2017, and has scholarship offers from Kansas, Purdue and Indiana.
In March this explosive 6-3, 200-pound athlete walked into Southport football coach Bill Peebles’ office and said he’d like to play football. Peebles was unconvinced.
“Yeah right, Paul,” Peebles told him. “You’re getting recruited by Kentucky.”
Spring workouts were a few weeks later, and not the fun kind. No footballs allowed. Starting at 6 a.m.
Scruggs was there every time. Peebles was convinced.
“We understand the situation he’s in,” Peebles says. “If he decided not to play because there are a lot of reasons for someone like him to say no, we would understand and be totally good with it. But our attitude all along was like, ‘If Paul wants to play, we’re not going to be the person to tell him no.'”
Scruggs will be playing with one of the top quarterbacks in Indiana in Johnston. Another Southport basketball player, DeMari Davis, made the same switch last season – and playing football for the first time, Davis caught 43 passes for 521 yards.
Davis is a fine athlete – he’s at Rock Valley (Ill.) College for basketball – but Scruggs is at a different level. Like a Gary Harris-type level.
You remember Gary Harris. The former Hamilton Southeastern star who won IndyStar Mr. Basketball the same year he was a first team all-state wide receiver. He now plays shooting guard for the Denver Nuggets.
So what kind of numbers might Scruggs put up this season? That’s what I’m asking Peebles.
“I don’t want to put any numbers on him, because he’s played football for about three weeks,” Peebles says. “He has all the tools in the world, but he’s still figuring it out. First week, the technique of just holding the football was foreign to him.”
Then Peebles does something he does several times with me: He pauses. He has more to say, but he’s not sure how far to go.
“He’s in the process of figuring it all out,” Peebles says, then starts to laugh. Another pause. Then he finishes his thought: “But trust me, once he gets it, he’ll be kind of scary.”
* * *
Last week the Cardinals had their Red and White Scrimmage. Playing against a defense that returns six starters from a sectional champion, Scruggs scored twice.
One was a one-handed TD catch.
Several times, in several ways, I ask Scruggs what he expects this season.
“I think I can help this team with some touchdowns,” is the most he’ll say, and that’s because Johnston “is such a great quarterback.”
At practice, Southport receivers coach Brian Dugger follows Scruggs to the huddle after most plays to continue their crash course in Football 101. After practice, Dugger doesn’t say a word when I ask how good Scruggs will be this season. He just smiles and raises an eyebrow.
Could he get hurt? Sure, it’s possible. But one Division I coach recruiting him told me, “He could get hurt just as easily playing open (basketball) gym.”
A bigger concern is the time football practice will take from his basketball development. Scruggs has heard that as well, and he spends several nights a week in the local YMCA, shooting after football practice – and after dinner and homework – until the gym closes at 10 p.m.
“Most of the (basketball) coaches recruiting me say I’m kind of built for football,” Scruggs says, “because I’m physical.”
Says Peebles: “He’s a workout warrior. He’s not like most basketball players. He loves the weight room.”
Says me: What’s his football ceiling?
Peebles: “I don’t want to go there.”
Go somewhere, I beg.
“Athletic ceiling? He has no athletic ceiling,” Peebles says. “We know he’s in that category in basketball. Football, I don’t know. Two weeks ago he’s learning how to hold a football.”
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Peebles pauses. And smiles.
“But he’s really good.”
I ask Peebles about another receiver who caught my eye in practice, a smaller receiver with good speed and hands.
“(That player) is competing for a starting job,” Peebles says.
So how about Paul Scruggs, I ask Peebles. Is he competing for a starting job too?
Peebles doesn’t speak. He just shakes his head deliberately.
I catch on slowly, but I’m catching on here. Are you shaking your head, I ask Peebles, because you already know Scruggs is starting?
Peebles nods his head slowly. Yes. He is making eye contact with me, and his eyes are telling me what his voice will not. Not yet. Not until Scruggs gets on the field and proves it.