Big plays remain the calling card for Southern’s Willie Quinn _lowres

Advocate staff photo by HILARY SCHEINUK -- Southern's Willie Quinn slips the tackle by Jackson State's Kadora Smith on his way to the end zone on an 81-yard punt return for a touchdown Saturday at Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium in Jackson, Miss.

All of Southern’s opponents know Willie Quinn’s ability to hurt them with big plays.

He has done it catching passes, taking handoffs and fielding kickoffs and punts, and he has done it on a weekly basis. Still, nobody seems able to do much about it.

“Willie’s probably one of the best players I’ve ever played with in my entire life,” Southern running back Lenard Tillery said. “You know he’s going to make a big play, and then 10 seconds later you’re like, ‘Yeah, he really did make a big play.’ It happens over and over again. Every game, he has made a fantastic play. So now, we just expect it out of him.”

Jackson State was the latest opponent to be burned by Quinn. He returned a punt 81 yards for a touchdown, caught an 87-yard pass that set up a field goal, and finished with 242 all-purpose yards in the Jaguars’ 42-28 victory last Saturday.

Quinn was named Southwestern Athletic Conference Specialist of the Week and Louisiana Sportswriters Association Special Teams Player of the Week on Monday.

He also was named SWAC Specialist of the Week after returning a kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown at Prairie View on Sept. 20.

He was named Offensive Player of the Week three weeks ago for his performance against Alabama A&M. Quinn had seven catches for 132 yards, including a 79-yard touchdown, and returned a late punt 28 yards to put Southern on short field from which they drove to a winning touchdown.

Alabama State gets the next crack at trying to slow Quinn when it visits Southern on Saturday.

“He’s the only guy on our football team who really believes he’s going to score every time he touches the football,” coach Dawson Odums said. “He’s going to take chances. That’s why he makes big plays. He’s a special football player. He has a big heart in a little body. He gives everything he has got. And at the end of the day, if he touches it, we expect him to go the distance.”

Quinn has had a big impact in every game, even those that didn’t yield an award for him.

He had a 56-yard reception and finished with 105 yards on eight catches in the season opener at Louisiana-Lafayette. He had a 56-yard return of the opening kickoff, which set up a touchdown, a week later against Central Methodist.

He had a 79-yard touchdown catch against Northwestern State. And he had a 10-yard touchdown catch and 76-yard kickoff return that led to a field goal against Alcorn State.

Quinn added passing to his repertoire when he threw a 41-yard touchdown to Reggie Travis against Arkansas-Pine Bluff. When the Jaguars introduced the play in practice, the original plan was to run it with wide receiver Justin Morgan, a high school quarterback who has taken snaps in the Wildcat formation.

But offensive coordinator Chad Germany granted Quinn’s request to run the play in practice.

“It wasn’t a strike,” Quinn said of his first throw, “but it was in the breadbasket. I played quarterback my last year back in little league, and I played baseball, so it’s kind of easy to me. I’ve been able to throw since I was young.”

But mostly Quinn, a junior from Miami, is able to run fast and make elusive cuts. He has been helped by having several other big-play athletes for teammates.

Alabama A&M kicked away from Quinn on kickoffs but learned that freshman Danny Johnson isn’t a much better option: He had a 66-yard return that led to a touchdown. Johnson also had a 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Arkansas-Pine Bluff.

Jackson State had a similar experience when Jaleel Richardson had a 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.

“You can’t kick it away from anybody,” Quinn said. “You try to kick it away from me, we’ve still got big playmakers back there.”

The biggest one, though, is the 5-foot-5 Quinn, who had seven touchdown receptions as the second-leading receiver to Lee Doss and returned a kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown last season.

“When I first got here, he was standing like 5-foot-2, and I thought he was somebody’s little brother,” Tillery said. “But the first day of practice, he came out doing what Willie does. Nobody understands how Willie does it. I’m just happy that he’s on my team.”

Opponents have a similar problem when they overcompensate for Quinn the receiver. When wide receiver Randall Menard was lost for the season after suffering a toe injury in the season opener, it naturally invited double teams on Quinn.

But Morgan and Travis have made them pay with big plays of their own.

“We move him around on offense,” Odums said of Quinn. “We make it tough, but teams have started to double him. That’s why you’re starting to see Reggie Travis have big games. You’re starting to see Justin Morgan make plays.”

Travis has catches of 30, 38, 52 and 79 yards; Morgan has catches of 55, 68 and 79 yards.

“When you talk to defensive coordinators around the league,” Germany said, “even when Lee Doss was here, they all say, ‘We’ve got to find a way to stop No. 25 (Quinn).’ ”

They’re still searching.