North Gwinnett’s C.J. Leggett (7) carries the ball past Peachtree Ridge’s Aaron Harris (44) earlier this season. (Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan)
Early in North Gwinnett’s’ only loss of the season to Collins Hill, starting senior quarterback Hayden Sphire buckled after throwing an 80-yard touchdown pass.
From that moment, the Bulldogs were forced to cobble together an offensive attack well away from the plan put in place during the week. The main instrument of that cobbling was C.J. Leggett.
Against the Eagles, the mallet of Leggett couldn’t overcome the sudden change in scheme, though he did score the only touchdown North scored the rest of the way. Yet in spite of the one sour outcome of the season, the takeaway for those watching was that the eye-popping North Gwinnett offense wasn’t just a product of receivers Nate and Almonzo Brown or Caleb Scott. The Bulldogs’ threat extended sideline to sideline and into the backfield.
“It gives the defenses more people to cover,” Leggett said. “If I am doing well … if they are packing in the box, we can get our receivers involved.”
The 28 points put up in the loss to Collins Hill was the only time the Bulldogs didn’t score more than 30 points this season, before or after.
“He’s been huge,” North head coach Bob Sphire said. “Having him at full strength and really asserting himself the way he has the past two weeks, he’s taken a huge load on.”
It was a load Leggett was ready to carry; not excited for the injury but willing to expand his role.
“I am really enjoying (more carries),” Leggett said. “It’s basically whatever I have to do to help the team win, but me contributing, I am always happy about that.”
Through the first 11 games, Leggett has rushed for 1,027 yards with 16 rushing touchdowns. He also has 12 receptions for 187 yards. In the Bulldogs’ region co-championship-sealing win over Peachtree Ridge, the running back accounted for all three of his team’s first quarter touchdowns setting up the lopsided win. In their first round playoff win over Milton, he took the ball 21 times for 131 yards and two touchdowns.
But Leggett’s resurgence within North’s offense isn’t strictly the result of the uncertainty at the quarterback position. Leggett was hurt in the first quarter of the Bulldogs’ Week 2 game against Grayson and the next week against Norcross, Sphire described him as “ineffective” with his lingering turf toe.
“Maybe he got lost in the shuffle of people recognizing the value,” Sphire said. “I know this, when he was injured those two games, as a play caller it really cut down my options.”
With Leggett a true threat, Sphire said his playbook’s pages don’t dwindle with an incomplete pass.
“Knowing you can run the ball on second-and-10, third-and-6, that’s significant,” Sphire said. “(Other teams) can’t lighten the box.”
Leggett also needed time to introduce himself to his competition. The Chattahoochee transfer only rushed for 500 yards and eight touchdowns last season.
“It’s more a mixture of both (the offense and the offseason),” Leggett said. “I put in a lot of work in the offseason, giving me the opportunity and trusting me to make big plays in key situations.”
As the season turned later, the intensity of those situations magnifies. Leggett still relishes the game-winning touchdown against Mill Creek when North overcame a three-touchdown deficit.
He’s hoping for more memorable moments this season and though he won’t say his confidence ever wavered during his injuries Leggett admits its beginning to crest.
“It starting to increase, but I’ve always known if you give me the ball in the right situation, I can make a play,” he said.