There was the night this fall that Willis High School quarterback DJ Lagway threw six touchdown passes in the first quarter against Cleveland. Yes, in the first quarter. Even the folks who’ve come to expect greatness from one of the best high school quarterbacks in the country were blown away by that one.
Years from now, when they reminisce about this magical season at Willis, that performance is sure to come up. Lagway flicked a touchdown pass across the middle on the first play of the game. It was the opening act of a performance that showed off his entire arsenal: breathtaking, pinpoint-deep tosses, rifle-arm sideline throws, and everything in between.
His coaches and teammates seldom gush over such feats anymore because they have become almost routine: seven touchdown passes in the season opener against Bryan’s Rudder High. Six against Grand Oaks. Five apiece against New Caney, College Park, and Caney Creek.
Actually, when teammates and coaches talk about Lagway, they want to tell you about everything else he does. About how he took teammates on recruiting trips so they could, as he said, “see that there’s a world outside of Willis.” How he makes sure his receivers and running backs all get their touches during games. How he hangs around after games to pose for selfies and sign autographs for the dozens of youngsters waiting for him. How he almost never turns down an invitation to speak at a church or school.
“He’s a great person, a great human,” sophomore teammate Jermaine Bishop Jr. said. “He’s a person you want to be around. Honestly, he’s a brother.”
All the praise begins with what Lagway has done on the field. He’s completing 77 percent of his passes, averaging 8.1 yards per run, and he has accounted for 41 touchdowns during a season in which his 8–0 team is averaging almost 59 points a game and winning by 43. The Wildkats score with such ease most games that Lagway seldom throws the ball much after halftime.
He’s just the latest in a long history of electrifying eighteen-year-olds that Texas high school football has produced through the years, from Earl Campbell to Eric Dickerson to Vince Young and dozens of others.
“I’ve coached players that went to the NFL, but I’ve never coached one that I knew was going to get there,” said Trent Miller, Willis High’s second-year head coach. “DJ can be a first-round draft pick. He throws the ball better than I’ve ever seen a kid throw a ball. He has the ability to throw the football at whatever angle he needs to throw it. He can also step up in the pocket and throw it sixty yards down the field. It looks so effortless with that quick release. He’s also so smart and so cerebral with everything he does.”
Lagway looks the part, too: six three and 225 pounds, with an easygoing personality and a captivating smile. He’s the number one dual-threat quarterback in Texas, according to Rivals.com, and ESPN has pegged him as the sixteenth-best high school senior in the nation (number two among quarterbacks).
Don’t look for any crazy recruiting tales with Lagway. He removed himself from the feeding frenzy last winter when he committed to the University of Florida and promptly began working on convincing other high school stars to join him. There’ll be buckets of name, image, and likeness money awaiting him, for sure, but Florida seems to have been atop his list for other reasons too.
“Honestly, I was surprised,” said Derek Lagway, DJ’s dad, who played running back for Baylor in the late nineties. “I was pushing for Baylor, but DJ said he’d had his eye on Florida for a while.”
DJ said he chose Florida for a variety of reasons, beginning with his meeting with Gators coach Billy Napier and members of his staff, along with the vibe he felt on campus, especially on game days. “Coach Napier has built a great culture,” he said. “It just had a good feel. It’s the fan base, the atmosphere on game day. The fans have shown me a tremendous amount of love.”
His family’s roots in Willis run deep. Derek Lagway’s mom—DJ’s grandmother—was the late Eddie Ruth Lagway, a longtime member of the city’s school board after whom Lagway Elementary was named in 2021. Derek and his future wife, Nikita, left Willis briefly to attend college, then returned and began their life together. Derek took over his mom’s bail bond business when she died in 2012.
Willis High’s recent football history had been nothing special until Trent Miller, the head coach, was lured from Spring High School before the 2022 school year. He’s a 2004 graduate of nearby Oak Ridge High and played football at Texas A&M–Commerce.
Coaching had not been in his master plan. “I wanted to be a professional football player,” he said. “Luckily, you have good people in your life to tell you, ‘Okay, what’s your plan B?’ ”
Thus began Miller’s career in coaching. Now he’s nearly fanatic about it. “I enjoy the journey; I enjoy the process,” he said, “but more than anything else, I enjoy the grind. I want these kids to have the best experience possible they could ever have in high school, because a lot of these kids won’t play college football. I love it, man. I live for it.”
Miller was the first person Willis athletic director Jason Glenn—yes, former Texas A&M and NFL linebacker Jason Glenn—called when he looked to fill the school’s coaching position. “He was always somebody I admired from far away,” Glenn said. “We’d coached against one another, and he had a great offense: hard to defend, easy to teach. He fit exactly what I was looking for. I also knew we were getting a good man, and that was important.”
Miller jumped at the opportunity to become part of a rapidly growing suburb an hour north of Houston. “You always saw the talent here,” he said. “But there was something missing. Something was holding them back. We had flipped Spring High School [into a winning program]. With the talent they have out here, with the growth, we can make it a special place.”
Miller said he looked to instill discipline throughout the football program as soon as he arrived at Willis. “I walked into the weight room to meet the kids,” he said, “and there were kids in wifebeaters, cutoff shirts, flip-flops. There was a radio playing and coaches not really paying attention.”
He telephoned Glenn and asked: “Man, what did you get me into?”
“Brother, that’s why you’re here,” Glenn told him.
“We got that stuff fixed real quick,” Miller said. “I think the players in this program wanted structure, they wanted discipline, and I don’t think they ever really had it. You just have to say, ‘This is what we expect. We’re going to dress the same. We’re going to look the same.’ You just establish what you expect from day one, and then you follow up those expectations with actions.”
As wide receiver Debraun Hampton said: “Coach Miller has made a big difference—a big difference. He brought his culture, his mentality. He walks in with the mentality that he’s going to win, and that’s passed down to us.”
Lagway called him “a hard, tough-nosed coach that’s gonna get us better.” At spring drills that first year, Miller remembers going “ballistic” a time or two as he instituted shorter, faster practices with full pads and contact. “We’re tackling to the ground,” he told players. “We’re finishing blocks off. If you have a problem with that, go play baseball. I told the kids, ‘However you’ve done things in the past clearly has not worked. That’s why I’m here. This is how we’re going to do things now.’ There wasn’t a lot of mental toughness. There wasn’t a lot of physical toughness. After that first week of spring ball, the first six practices, the light bulb started going off.”
After a 5–5 opening season—Lagway was slowed by an ankle injury last year—Miller ordered a pre-Christmas “military boot camp” that consisted of push-ups, squat jumps, and other forms of near-torturous training. “Shirts are tucked in,” Miller said. “No earrings. It’s just everything to the smallest detail. You don’t look around; you don’t wipe the sweat off your face. You just eat the pain. When one guy messes up, we started over. Some days it takes five minutes. Some days it takes thirty minutes.
“We did that for three weeks before Christmas—you know why?” he asked players. “Katy’s practicing right now. North Shore is practicing right now. The Woodlands is practicing right now. We have a chance to get a jump start on everybody. By spring ball, we had something special.”
Now? “What I’ve explained to the kids,” he said, “this team is in a situation that it has never been in before. We’re at a point where we’re going to get everybody’s absolute best. You say you’re playing Willis, it gets people’s attention. They can do things they don’t normally do because they have nothing to lose.”
Seeing the players’ confidence grow has been one of the best parts of the experience. Lagway and his receivers spent hours in the summer heat, running so many patterns together that each knew how the others would react in various situations. “I’d been here two or three weeks in 2021 when DJ texted and asked if I could open the field so they could go run pass routes,” Glenn said. “I went over and watched them, and it was at full speed. I’d thought of him as a running quarterback, but his arm is amazing. He can move around, change arm angles, and has the gift to put the ball where it needs to go.”
With each victory, confidence inside the locker room has grown. “That’s true,” Lagway said, “but we worked hard to get to this point. We committed ourselves to this.”
Miller has seen that attitude manifest itself in all sorts of ways. “What winning does for kids’ confidence is unbelievable,” he said. “For them to be able to celebrate each other’s accomplishments. There’s no selfishness within the program. Winning—it’s addicting, man. You become like a drug addict chasing that next high. These kids have a mindset in regards to how you prepare for a game.”
Miller cites the Wildkats’ 75–14 victory over Cleveland this season. Afterward, his players were upset that they hadn’t scored on every possession and that they’d allowed Lagway to be sacked. “Winning is no longer good enough,” the coach said, “and when you have that expectation, you can do special things. If you’re always striving to do better, you’re always going to work harder.”
Miller arrived at Willis having never seen DJ Lagway play football, and when he met with the Lagway family, he came to understand another aspect of his quarterback’s success. “You’ll never meet a better set of parents,” Miller said. “They’d done their homework on me. They know that offensively we like to air it out, and DJ was excited about that. But for the family it was more about who we were as human beings, and if it was going to be a good fit and how I was going to treat his kid. Derek didn’t want DJ to be treated any differently than anybody else. He wanted to make sure the focus was on the team, not just DJ.
“I tell people that if DJ wasn’t a five-star, if he was just an average high school quarterback, he’d still be one of my favorites I’ve ever coached because he’s such a humble and such a just fabulous human being, so gracious with everything that he does,” Miller gushed. “No moment’s too big for him. He’s not too big for anybody.”
In a coach and quarterback’s second year together, the sideline conversations typically consist of each asking the other for feedback. “Obviously, DJ’s at a different place with his understanding,” Miller said. “He sees the big picture and will come over and say, ‘Jay’s only gotten one catch. Let’s throw the ball to Jalen [Mickens].’ He’s so conscientious about making sure everybody else is elevated with him. And it’s really special to watch.”
Miller said that at least ten other Willis players have multiple Division I scholarship offers. It was only eighteen months ago that Miller had been horrified by the lackadaisical atmosphere in the weight room. “I thought we could do special things,” he said. “I didn’t think it would happen this fast, and obviously DJ is a big part of that. But if you don’t have talent around him, you’re still not going to win.”
And an entire city has rallied around its football team. Pregame tailgating begins at midmorning. Stands are packed an hour before kickoff. All are invested. “These people are passionate, hungry, and they are completely bought in,” Miller said. “When the buses pull in, they leave the tailgate, come over, and welcome the kids into the stadium. Man, it’s really, really cool to see. And they love them some Wildkat football.”