Salisbury, Johns Hopkins should be class of in-state DIII football teams again

Lonnie Liggins knows he can't take anything for granted in the sport of football. It was six years ago when the running back was named The Baltimore Sun's Baltimore County Player of the Year, rushing for 1,321 yards and 23 touchdowns at Hereford.

But that was five schools and three knee surgeries ago.

Now the 24-year-old is getting one last chance to resurrect a once-promising career at Division III Salisbury. And he's planning to make the most of it.

"I used to be the guy who'd get all the touchdowns," Liggins said. "My role now is just being a leader, blocking and trying to make things happen. … It's been a journey, but I'm blessed to be playing because most people would have given up by now."

Liggins is one of several players who will be stepping into key roles for the Sea Gulls, who enter this season ranked No. 16 in the nation despite losing eight starters on offense, including record-setting quarterback Dan Griffin.

Another local team, Johns Hopkins, is right behind them at No. 17, despite graduating the Centennial Conference's Offensive Player of the Year, running back Jonathan Rigaud, and Defensive Player of the Year, linebacker Taylor Maciow.

Both teams last season advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament, before each suffering lopsided losses. Now both are hoping to take that next step.

"They know that if they play their best game, they can compete with the top teams in the country," said Hopkins coach Jim Margraff, whose team was eliminated by eventual national champion Mount Union.

The Blue Jays return four starting offensive linemen, led by All-American right tackle Armand Jenifer. Margraff is hoping sophomore Brandon Cherry (Boys' Latin) can fill the shoes of Rigaud (1,555 yards, 22 touchdowns) at speed back, complemented by the return of bruising senior JD Abbott.

"Whenever you're gashing somebody for 10 yards, and then you put in a power back and he runs you over, it's just really frustrating for a defense," said quarterback Robbie Matey, who threw for 2,453 yards and 12 touchdowns. "I think we'll have a very balanced attack again this year."

Salisbury, meanwhile, will be counting on several players like Liggins to step to the forefront. It's a position the senior is happy to fill.

After accepting an offer from Army, Liggins spent a year at prep school before moving on to West Point, where his skills quickly became evident.

The freshman scored his first collegiate touchdown, a 17-yard run, against Rutgers, and was slated to start the following week against Air Force. That's when he first noticed the soreness in the back of his knee.

A torn ACL went undiagnosed until months later, when he experienced swelling after taking a light hit at a summer camp. Surgery, however, didn't completely fix the problem, derailing plans to resurrect his career at Towson.

He spent most of the next two years on the sidelines, earning his accounting degree from a junior college, while always longing to return to the field. Following a third surgery last year, he finally got that chance with Salisbury, playing a utility role in the team's spread-option offense, primarily as a blocker.

This year, coach Sherman Wood said he plans to rotate Liggins with fellow slotbacks Nick Aloi — himself returning from a broken ankle —- and Isaiah Taylor.

"This year, I can be a game-changer," Liggins said. "That's something I just have to live up to like I did in high school."

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