NORTH PORT — This time last season, North Port was 1-3, slowly falling apart and the only bright spot had been a two-interception game by cornerback Jeremiah “Juju” Laguerre.
The pair of pickoffs would be his only two of the season as teams made the simple adjustment of throwing the ball nowhere near him.
No such luck in 2021. Throw short, Laguerre is there. Throw to the flat, Laguerre is there. Throw deep, Laguerre is there.
Throw it anywhere?
Laguerre is there.
First-year coach Garon Belser and his staff switched Laguerre to free safety, and playing center field has suited the junior to the tune of seven interceptions in four games.
The Bobcats are 1-3 once again, but with Laguerre anchoring the back end of a solid defensive unit. North Port has had opportunities to get themselves back into games.
“They’re giving us every chance and you can’t complain when Juju gets you two more possessions in every game when he picks them,” Belser said.
Laguerre’s seven picks have vaulted him into a tie with two others for second in the nation according to MaxPreps.com. The leader, Aemon Aldrich of Foresthill, California, has eight through five games.
“I’ll read the quarterback and sometimes he’ll look one way and I’ll just drift over,” Laguerre said. “Some of the quarterbacks have been good — I’m not saying the others have been trash — but I think I read the quarterback really well. I read the guards and the line, too, and see if it’s a pass.”
Early in life, Laguerre thought he might play basketball, but the football career of an uncle, Izzy Laguerre, inspired him to switch. Izzy Laguerre at one point held the sacks record at Port Charlotte before going on to Bethany (W.V.) College. He continued playing after college with the Sarasota Millionaires of the minor-league SSFL and was inducted into that league’s hall of fame in 2009.
After nabbing those two interceptions against Sarasota in 2020, Laguerre set a goal of becoming North Port’s all-time interceptions leader. No one knows for sure what that record is, but it’s probably safe to assume he either owns that record by now or, with the rest of this season and all of 2022 to go, it will be his.
Laguerre said the frustration mounted in 2020 when teams adjusted to his play.
“There were games where they never threw it to my side, so for my film, I’d just try to get tackles, the most tackles I could,” he said.
Making matters worse was the team’s overall attitude.
“Everybody last year was just in their own place and nobody was really connected,” he said.
With a new coaching staff cleansing what had been a toxic atmosphere, Laguerre said the Bobcats’ defense has come together.
“We all play as a family,” he said. “Every time I’m on the field, it just feels like I’m one with everybody. Everybody’s in flow, in sync. Obviously, mistakes happen, but that’s part of football.”
One reason Laguerre might feel everyone is in sync is because he is everywhere.
“He’s always going to be the most athletic guy on the field,” Belser said. “When we have him setting back there in the secondary, we never have to worry about him missing an assignment. Any ball that’s put up in the air, we’re assuming he’s going to go make a play on it. (Free safety) clearly has fit him better and gives him more of an opportunity and free space to get creative.”
Though Laguerre managed an interception this past Friday in a 17-0 loss to Palmetto Ridge, Belser said he was pleased to see him become more involved as a run-stopper, something the coaching staff had been working with him to improve.
“He was more aggressive in the run game, which speaks to the coachability of him,” Belser said. “He’ll do exactly what we ask of him and never complains about anything.”
At a quick and athletic 6-2 and 180 pounds, Laguerre has the physical tools to stay at the position at the next level, something he is eager to do. To that end, he spends his Sundays studying the NFL’s best defensive backs, such as Jalen Ramsey, Jeff Okudah and Denzel Ward.
“They’re aggressive,” Laguerre said. “They don’t let anybody step in front of them and they’re always on top. They’re ball hawks.”
The league – and even college – can wait, though, Laguerre said. He’s focused on getting North Port’s program turned around.
“We’re definitely getting better every week,” he said. “We have a better attitude and are just more of a family.”
Belser said he wouldn’t be surprised if colleges increased their interest in Laguerre as the season progresses. Once that interest arrives, he said the schools will discover he’s as good in the classroom as he is on the field.
“I think any college coach would love him, and he’ll probably start drawing high-level interest,” Belser said. “Realistically, seven interceptions … you know what I’m saying?
“He’s going to get interest and someone’s going to come out looking like a genius by getting him,” Belser added. “The grades, the (eye) test, he’s one of those guys you can bring in and won’t be an issue academically and he’s coachable. His future is bright and I’m fortunate he’s just looking at right now.”