SUWANEE — Both North Gwinnett and C.J. Leggett had enjoyed their share of success over the past two high school football seasons.
And both the Bulldogs and their senior have benefitted even more than either the coaching staff or the 5-foot-10, 207-pound running back could’ve imagined when he transferred to North from Chattahoochee this past summer.
After several seasons of using a committee of running backs, the Bulldogs have found a go-to back who can handle the bulk of the carries, while North has given Leggett a chance to be that feature back after being limited in his carries at Chattahoochee.
His ability to handle that role is a big reason the No. 4 state-ranked Bulldogs are making their second state semifinal appearance when they travel to Powder Springs for tonight’s Class AAAAAA semifinal against McEachern.
“Wesley (Edwards) has (also) been a quality back for us and done some really good things and been a real key to our success, but C.J.’s has obviously carried a huge load,” North coach Bob Sphire said. “The time I won a state championship, I had a 1,500-yard back up in Kentucky. So, I know the value of what that can do for your offense. C.J. has that kind of durability.”
Leggett has definitely passed a major test of his durability this season.
After combining for 115 carries (for more than 900 yards) in his past two seasons at Chattahoochee, he has nearly doubled that number this year with 218 this fall, and has produced 1,349 yards (seventh among all Gwinnett County running backs) and 21 touchdowns (third in the county).
Those statistics have put him on the radar for several prominent college programs, as he already has scholarship offers from the likes of UCLA, Pittsburgh and Vanderbilt, and has attracted interest from others like Auburn and Missouri.
But Leggett’s value to the North offense goes even beyond his impressive numbers.
His speed and power running the ball has added a dimension to the Bulldogs they haven’t often enjoyed in recent years and complemented an already potent unit led by the passing game of quarterback Hayden Sphire and top-notch receivers like Nate Brown, Caleb Scott, Almonzo Brown and Daniel Imatorbhebhe.
“Joe Jones and Rahmil Brantley were hammers when they were playing for us, but for the most part, what we’ve had here skill-position wise has been the more smaller, scat (back) guys,” Sphire said of the type of running backs the Bulldogs have feature in his tenure. “It really does (complement the passing game). When you can play a physical brand of football running the football mixed in with all the spread concept stuff that we do, that can be a really potent mixture. Obviously, he’s been a great addition to our team.”
At the same time, North not only gave Leggett a chance to be a more featured part of the offense he was playing in, it also gave him a chance to settle in after spending his freshman season at Buford and the last two years at Chattahoochee.
Still, it took a while for him to really get in the swing of the offense after suffering through a turf toe injury during the season’s second game against Grayson.
“(The injury) kind of set me back a little bit, but we kind of knew during that part of the season we’d have to rely more on the passing game knowing I wasn’t 100 percent,” Leggett said. “It took a little patience, but as long as the team’s winning, that’s all that matters. Whatever I can do to help the team.
“I knew I had to carry the load. When Hayden got injured … Coach (Sphire) told me (the offense) would kind of shift towards me.”
That patience paid off through the latter part of the regular season and the playoffs as a now healthy Leggett has been asked to return the favor somewhat with both Sphire and back-up quarterback John Urzua have battled injuries of their own.
Leggett gives much of the credit for his patience and ability to adapt roles to the work ethic instilled in him by his parents, Dr. Christopher Leggett, a noted local cardiologist, and Denise Cleveland-Leggett, an attorney with a prominent Atlanta law firm.
“My parents have always taught me to be the best I can be in everything I do,” Leggett said. “Just being around them and seeing their work habits and their effort, what they put into what they do, just kind of rubbed off.”
Sphire believes the influence Leggett has absorbed form his parents has also had a similar positive affect on his teammates.
“When you’ve got a father who’s one of the top cardiac surgeons in the Southeast who’s a Princeton grad and a mother who’s a (lawyer), you’re around parents who are successful people and who understand the value of work and commitment to effort,” Sphire said. “That’s something that’s ingrained with you from your family.
“Winners know how to lose, and some people who don’t know how to lose aren’t winners. Well, the real tell-tale sign of what we had in C.J. was when we lost to Collins Hill (on Oct. 26). His effort through that game and his communication to the team and to me after the game, and his body language were nothing but what you want from a champion. He made sure he understood his commitment to us winning a state championship. I thought that was a moment in time when he showed winning character. Some people don’t know how to lose. That reveals a lot. What it revealed in him was a winner.”