Willie Quinn and Lenard Tillery arrived at Southern as freshman football players two years ago.
Tillery remembers spotting Quinn — all 5-foot-5 of him — for the first time.
“When I first saw him I said, “Whose little brother is this?’ ” Tillery recalled.
A little later, Tillery was checking into Granderson Hall and there was Quinn again.
“I was like, ‘OK, he must be helping somebody move in,’ ” Tillery said.
The next time Tillery saw Quinn was on the football field for the first practice.
“Lo and behold, the first day of practice he’s out there making it happen,” Tillery said, “and I’m like, ‘This dude really plays football.’
“The first day of practice, he jumped over one of the best (defensive backs) on the team and I was like, ‘OK, I’m going to have to hold back and see what he’s all about before I say something.’ ”
It was a classic example of why you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover — or a football player by his height.
“The smallest guy on the field with the biggest heart,” quarterback Austin Howard said.
Quinn had an impact right away as he was the Jaguars’ second-leading receiver as a freshman. He had little impact on punt returns, but had a bigger impact on kickoffs, averaging 29.5 yards on 18 returns. He returned a kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown against Northwestern State, and the long-distance touchdown was habit forming.
Last season, Quinn not only emerged as Southern’s leading receiver, he averaged an eye-popping 22.2 yards on 13 punt returns, two of which ended in the end zone, and returned 25 kickoffs for a 25.8-yard average and had a 98-yarder for a touchdown. He also threw a 49-yard touchdown pass.
“He’s one of the best players I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing alongside,” said Tillery, the Jaguars’ top running back. “He just makes you take your game to a higher level watching him out there making great plays out of nothing. He makes you want to work harder so you can try and be like him one day.”
Steve Adams, then an assistant at Nicholls State, watched Quinn when Southern played on TV, not realizing that a few months later he would be hired as the Jaguars special teams and secondary coach.
“You’d see No. 25 back there,” Adams said, referring to Quinn’s jersey number, “and you’d say the kid is pretty special.”
Shortly after being hired, Adams went recruiting.
“People would see the ‘Southern’ on my chest and everybody would ask me about No. 25,” Adams said.
Though Adams had been impressed while watching Quinn on TV, he got an up-close perspective when practice started.
“It’s his first step, how quick he is off the ball,” Adams said. “You see his size and how he’s built — there’s not an ounce of fat on the kid — and once he gets that first step, he’s going to blow by somebody. We saw that going against him in camp playing in the secondary when he’s playing wide receiver. You see how hard he is to guard in the slot.
“He’ll toy with you. He’d come slow off the ball, but when he wanted to turn it on, he’d go right past you.”
Southern has played two games this season and Quinn has had a big impact in both. He returned a kickoff a career-best 100 yards for a touchdown in the opening loss at Louisiana Tech, then had a kickoff return for a TD, a punt return for a TD and had an 89-yard touchdown pass to Randall Menard in a win at Mississippi Valley State.
“Whenever he touches the ball, you know that he can score,” Tillery said. “That’s what Louisiana Tech saw and that’s what Mississippi Valley saw and every other team that played against him.”
“That’s one shifty guy,” fellow receiver/return specialist Justin Morgan said. “Honestly, you’re not going to get your hands on him in the open field.”
Howard called Quinn “a gift from God sent to us,” adding that there might be one extreme way teams could contain him: “There’s really nothing a team can do other than put all 11 players on him.”
He paused before adding, “That probably wouldn’t stop him either.”
Each game week, Quinn presents coach Dawson Odums with a hand-written note that contains his goals for that game.
“Usually he achieves whatever goals he writes down,” Odums said. “Whatever is motivating him and driving him to be the best person that he can be and be the best player that he can be, I hope he holds on to that because he becomes something special when he’s motivated by whatever he’s chasing.”
Quinn said he has been passing those notes to each of his coaches since he played Little League football in Miami.
“It gets me ready for the game,” Quinn said. “People don’t believe this, but I get scared and nervous before every game. Putting my goals on paper make me feel a little better.”
Quinn said the goals are never quantified by a number of catches or yards or touchdowns because “you don’t get a win like that.”
Instead he reminds himself to do things such as “play fast,” “fight until the end” and “never give up.”
“I’ve never given up in one game since I’ve been here,” Quinn said proudly. “No matter what the score is I always keep fighting until the end.”
After two-plus seasons of watching Quinn’s dazzling moves create seven return touchdowns and 15 offensive touchdowns, Tillery is awed by the little kid that arrived on campus with him.
“I always tell my teammates, if Willie was four inches taller he never would have seen Southern,” Tillery said. “He can play with the best of them.”
Follow Les East on Twitter @EastAdvocate.