Made for the moment: UF signee DJ Lagway prepared to be Gators’ future QB

GAINESVILLE — Growing up in Willis, Texas, quarterback DJ Lagway was a one-man show in a one-school town in a state with a one-track mind when it came to high school football.

Lagway arrived recently in Gainesville, where UF is the city’s epicenter and Gators’ football is an obsession. The combination makes Lagway, Florida’s first 5-star quarterback signee since Tim Tebow, a celebrity before he’s taken a snap wearing the orange and blue.

The 18-year-old is built for the moment.

At 6-foot-3, 238 pounds, Lagway is a dual-threat able to beat teams with his strong arm and physical running style.

“He exceeded my expectations for him,” said incoming linebacker Aaron Chiles, Lagway’s teammate at the Under Armour Next All-American game Jan. 3 in Orlando. “He’s what they say he is — all those rankings and all the talk about him is true. He’s a true baller.”

A young man unapologetic about his faith, Lagway understands Florida football is bigger than him and huge expectations can be fool’s gold.

“I take it with a grain of salt,” he said. “I just give it to God because it’s all a blessing because what God gives to you He also can take it away.”

Lagway knows he’s been blessed.

Since he began football as 5-year-old, Lagway has been the best player on the field. This past season, he was the top player in the nation, accounting for 73 touchdowns to earn Gatorade National Player of the Year.

Emmitt Smith, Gators legend, NFL all-time rushing leader and 1986 Gatorade honoree, presented Lagway with the award.

“It was a surreal moment and I was truly thankful and grateful for it,” he told 247Sports. “It’s truly a dream come true.”

Lagway’s Dec. 20 signing answered the prayers of Gator Nation.

Despite late pushes from big-time programs and even an 11th hour sit-down with nearby Texas A&M, Lagway’s commitment was “unwavering,” his personal quarterbacks coach J.P. Tillman of Houston told the Sentinel.

“That’s one of the coolest parts of the story,” Tillman said. “Everybody tried and everybody made their best attempt. But he wanted to be a Gator the whole time.”

Lagway now aims to produce a storybook ending as he begins his college football journey.

Third-year coach Billy Napier hopes Lagway can flip the script of a struggling program similar to the way he turned the Willis Wildkats into a winner.

“It doesn’t matter about the program. He’s up for the challenge,” Derek Lagway Sr. told the Sentinel. “That’s what he all about: He wants to change it. He’s going put the work in and do what he needs to change it.”

Willis High School made history during Lagway’s final season after winning just two games when he was a freshman. The undefeated Wildkats lost in the third round of the 6A state playoffs to top-ranked defending champion DeSoto Nov. 24 in San Antonio’s Alamodome.

The next night, Lagway was in the Swamp during the Gators’ loss to Florida State to fall to 5-7.

Lagway and top defensive recruit LJ McCray, who led Daytona Beach Mainland to its first state title since 2003, aim to lead a turnaround after performing a similar feat at the high school level.

“I feel you just got to have winners,” Lagway said. “That’s what me and LJ and all the other commits are trying to bring.”

Lagway also will wait his turn.

Graham Mertz returns for a sixth season after a career year following his transfer from Wisconsin. The 23-year-old is eager to mentor the Gators’ promising young signal-caller.

“I’m looking forward to that because I’m the old guy now,” said Mertz while recalling the tutelage of Jack Coan during his first season in Madison.

Football savvy, affable and dedicated, Mertz has become fast friends with the Lagways.

“I’ve spoken with Graham several times now and [DJ] has also,” Lagway Sr. said. “Graham is going to help him. He’s got a lot of experience and going to help my son get where he needs to be — and that’s a blessing.”

Lagway is sure to be in lockstep with the indefatigable Mertz, who performed his own version of two-a-days to get up to speed once he arrived exactly a year ago.

Leading up to his record-setting senior season, Lagway awoke at 4 a.m. from January to July and began his workouts at 4:30.

“The kid has an exceptional amount of work ethic,” said Tillman, founder of Five Star General Quarterback Academy. “His parents have done an amazing job in training him and just allowing him to be his best person as they grow him.”

Lagway Sr. said his son’s relentless approach comes in part from mom Nikita, a former star athlete who is a physical therapist.

“She’s a worker,” the dad said. “She played basketball, ran track, had no give-up in her.”

The elder Lagway wishes he had similar drive during his career at Baylor, where he rushed for 711 yards and 6 touchdowns during four seasons (1997-2001).

“I had a lot of natural ability, but I know that if I had to work harder I would have made it,” he said. “I know that’s what it takes — you got to work hard. When everybody else is sleeping you got to be be working.

“So that’s one of the things I instilled in him.”

Lagway Sr. coached his son’s Pop Warner teams, a time when DJ was a man among boys.

“He could score anytime he wanted to,” he said. “One season, he didn’t get tackled but eight, 10 times.”

Success won’t come as easily in the SEC.

Lagway had a rough ride during first football game in the Sunshine State. During a first-half run he tweaked his foot and sustained a game-ending sprain when a defender stepped on it during a pass rush.

Lagway’s NIL representative Deiric Jackson, who also is former Gators QB Anthony Richardson’s agent, told the Sentinel later his client’s foot is “going to be fine.”

When Lagway’s time arrives in Gainesville, the Gators should be in good hands.

Tillman said his star pupil can run like Richardson, pass like Patrick Mahomes and set a winning tone like Tebow.

“DJ Lagway is going to have a statue when it’s all said and done,” he said.

Such lofty praise sets a high bar. Yet Lagway does not plan to shy away from whatever comes his way.

“My hometown wasn’t a winning school, wasn’t a winning town,” he said. “But me coming in there and trying to change the atmosphere and just the way of the town, I feel like I did that. I’m trying to do the same thing in Gainesville.”

Edgar Thompson can be reached at