Jazz Ferguson was a big-shot recruit for mighty LSU. When he signed his athletic scholarship he was living a dream of every kid who has ever held a football in his native Louisiana.
Ferguson is 6 feet, 5 inches tall and weighs 227 pounds. He runs the 40-yard dash in 4.45 seconds. Some in his home state think he can run a 4.3. Four years ago, he seemed destined for stardom in the elite Southeastern Conference.
But he played in just two games as a freshman at LSU, seven as a sophomore. He had two catches in a game in 2016. And that’s it.
The teenage boy failed classes. He failed a drug test, reportedly for marijuana. He failed out of LSU’s football powerhouse in 2016. His chance at the NFL seemed teetering, if not lost.
He transferred in state to a school and coach that would take him, the Football Championship Subdivision Northwestern State Demons in Natchitoches, 180 miles from Baton Rouge. He paid his own way his first year at Northwestern State; he didn’t have the grades to qualify for a football scholarship. He worked at a catering company to pay for school in 2017 while playing on Northwestern State’s scout team.
In 2018, his only season playing for Northwestern State, the former LSU washout and lower-division scout-team walk-on became a man. He smashed records. He became the Southland Conference’s offensive player of the year.
In April, almost as soon as the NFL draft ended, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider called him. They wanted Ferguson to be part of Carroll’s goal in 2019 to use the offseason retirement of smaller, top receiver Doug Baldwin as the opportunity to become bigger and faster at wide receiver. Ferguson is bigger than DK Metcalf, the 6-foot-4 wide receiver Seattle traded up to draft in round two this spring. And he’s about as fast.
Ferguson chose the Seahawks over a competing free-agent offer from the rival Los Angeles Rams, the defending NFC champions.
Now he’s making a big—and I mean BIG—impression on his new coaches and teammates.
What did the former college-dropout, caterer and lower-division scout-team player learn from his harder road, from his home in St. Francisville, La., to Baton Rouge to Natchitoches to Seattle and the NFL?
“It gave me so many things,” he said Thursday following his latest eye-catching practice of the Seahawks’ preseason.
“It gave me maturity. It taught me how to be humble. Just like, beware-of-my-surroundings-type thing.
“I had to do a lot of growing up from that stage. When I got to Northwestern State, and then coming here, it created whole new stages.
“But I grew through that adversity just to get here.”
Overshadowed for months by the ultra-heralded Metcalf, Ferguson isn’t just looking huge. He’s playing huge. He’s created for himself a real chance to make the regular-season roster Seattle must set Aug. 31.
“Jazz didn’t get drafted because there were reasons, or whatever, in his past,” Carroll said.
“We’re giving him a chance to see if he can be with us and play right and play well and do his thing.”
Ferguson and Carroll didn’t get off to a smooth start in Seattle. The wide receiver showed up to rookie minicamp in May pudgy, far heavier than his listed 228 pounds. He slogged in and out of routes, especially compared to the sleek Metcalf.
It looked like Ferguson had met his latest roadblock.
Carroll told him after the team’s veteran minicamp ended in mid-June to lose weight during the six weeks the players had off until the start of training camp.
“So l lost the weight,” Ferguson said, flatly.
He showed up for training camp the last week of July having lost 12 pounds. He was running his routes far more fluidly. Carroll was so pleased he volunteered Ferguson’s weight loss to the media.
He credits workouts upon workouts, running and summer heat. Some of those workouts were in San Diego with quarterback Russell Wilson, in mid-July.
Even after losing the weight, he’s the only player on the Seahawks’ 90-man roster who makes the bullish Metcalf look smaller.
Yes, Paxton Lynch is 6-6. But he’s a quarterback. He’s not hulking like Ferguson.
He had two touchdown catches from Geno Smith, another of Wilson’s backups, in the team’s mock game early this month. Last week in the preseason opener, he had a team-high four receptions for 54 yards. He used his huge, 228-pound body to out-muscle Denver cornerback Linden Stephens on the goal line. He grabbed Lynch’s back-shoulder throw and dragged the cornerback while boxing out Stephens like a basketball player seeking a rebound. Another touchdown for Ferguson.
“Jazz Ferguson had a big night,” Carroll said after the first preseason game. “I thought he did a really good job of showing up. It’s what he’s been doing in practice. He came through in a big way. It was really obvious that he was out there. They had to change coverage a little bit to take care of him, to keep him from dominating the game.
“I thought it was a really good first night for him.”
So did Ferguson.
But he knows that will mean nothing if he doesn’t continue to progress in Sunday’s second preseason game at Minnesota.
“Coach always preaches about how much of an impression you can make on the older guys, to let them realize what is our point (of being) on the team, what package we bring to the team,” Ferguson said. “So I feel like I made a good first impression on those guys.
“I know I have to follow up with it, though.”
In Thursday’s practice Ferguson ran a square-in pattern in front of defensive back Akeem King, who is five inches shorter and about 15 pounds lighter. The rookie receiver easily warded off the charging King to catch Lynch’s pass.
“The one-on-one matchups, like Jazz in the game the other night, right? I mean, he’s covered. Paxton puts it in a good spot and he’s just bigger than the guy and kind of takes it away from him,” offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said.
“DK had a play (Wednesday), same type of thing.
“We definitely look different.”
Ferguson is also making a strong impression off the field. Actually, on the edges of it, to be exact.
Following Thursday’s two-hour practice, Ferguson broke from his huddle of wide receivers and jogged to the far corner of the main field. He started near the far goal line with the first of hundreds of fans standing along a metal fence barrier waiting for autographs. For more than 45 minutes, the rookie signed for every man, woman and child in that 100-yard line to the other goal line. He posed for selfies. He talked warmly in his native drawl.
Then, when he got to the end of that line, he looked a few feet to his left and noticed another line of people waiting for autographs behind the end zone astride the team’s headquarters building. He signed for all those folks, too.
Now that he’s made it through his rocky, youthful past and grown up into the NFL, Ferguson doesn’t just want to make this Seahawks team. He’s not satisfied in becoming Seattle’s latest undrafted rookie contributor, in the tradition of Doug Baldwin, Jermaine Kearse, Thomas Rawls, Poona Ford and more.
He wants to be the best.
Not the best rookie on this team.
“My goals are still the same: I want to be the offensive player of the year,” Ferguson said, without a smile.
On the Seahawks?
“In the league,” he said.
He nodded his head with a look of wonder why anyone would found that surprising.
“Not for the team. I’ve got high goals. I have high catch goals. And I have high touchdown goals.
“The main things is, I have to do what I have to do for this team before I can get to where I want to be.”