Jamario Holley made the 70-yard catch-and-run touchdown look like a Sunday stroll down a shady sidewalk.
He took a short pass in the Trojans’ 2016 season opener from Gage Moloney and turned up the field before a devastating cut took him beyond the fingertips of a would-be tackler, up the middle of the District Three Stadium field and away from chasing South Pointe defenders for the touchdown. Anyone that’s watched high school football in the Rock Hill area knows that leaving Stallion tacklers in the dust is a rare feat.
But the Trojans’ celebration was cut short. A flag laying on the field, far from the shouting and bouncing and helmet slaps, negated the touchdown. It was symbolic of Holley’s sophomore season, in which he caught half the number of passes and had a third of the receiving yardage of his breakout freshman season.
Holley’s 2017 campaign also got off to a sluggish start, but it’s changed direction the last three games. The speedy wide receiver has 27 catches for 467 yards and 10 touchdowns, including punt return and kick return scores. In three games.
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“We’ve expected him to do all those things but to see him explode on kickoff returns, punt returns this year, it’s just refreshing to see him carry on more of a leadership role,” said Northwestern interim head football coach James Martin. “He’s doing that in practice, hitting guys on the shoulder pads and just being an encourager. That’s what it takes this time of year.”
Holley said his recruiting has picked back up; he’s hearing from South Carolina and Clemson the most. It dimmed a bit after last season when he managed just 32 catches for 357 yards and three TDs. He injured his shoulder the second game and also battled a hamstring strain for much of the fall. He never got going.
“It feels good to know that I’m actually picking back up,” Holley said Wednesday morning after an ice bath. “I’m really feeling more of myself.”
Great expectations for Holley grew out of his ninth grade season. He caught 70 passes for 946 yards and 11 TDs, earning Freshman All-American honors from MaxPreps. That recognition was a double-edged sword for Holley, drawing praise from some and criticism from others, who suddenly thought he was too full of himself.
“I don’t know how to explain it,” he said Wednesday.
Click through the graphic to compare Jamario Holley’s production each of the last three seasons (with eight games played in 2017):
But therein lies one of the problems with a Freshman All-American team: the recipients are too young to deal with the expectations suddenly yoked around their collarbones. Holley was a freshman starter at Northwestern, something few have accomplished, and by his senior season in 2018 it will feel like he’s been around Rock Hill football forever. It’s tough to remember he’s just a teenager, that he’s not the finished product, and that not all personal progressions follow a direct linear path.
“Each year we’ve wanted him to grow more as a person and we’re starting to see that now,” Martin said.
Holley isn’t a reticent leader. He’s an extrovert who loves fashion and the envious glances that a fresh pair of Air Jordans draw. When he’s not playing football, Holley joked that he’s either shopping or sleeping. His most recent acquisition is one of his favorites: a pair of powder blue Air Jordan 3’s. As one of the team’s best players and - Holley will tell you - its best dresser, he has no problem communicating with his teammates. And they listen to him.
“I’ve got to talk my mind,” he said.
That trait proved crucial as Northwestern football navigated David Pierce’s midseason firing in September.
“People didn’t know how this was gonna work so I had to step up, like ‘no, we’re good regardless, just do what we have to do and show up on Friday,’” Holley said.
Holley said practice is faster and more intense, and there is more urgency after a 2-3 start and Pierce’s departure. The Trojans have won three straight games since, even with another top receiver, Jordan Starkes, playing sparingly the last two games because of injury.
Holley caught eight balls and returned a punt 52 yards for a touchdown in a narrow win over Gaffney, before hauling in 10 catches and scoring four touchdowns in the region-opening win against Fort Mill. Last week against Clover, the precocious junior caught nine passes for 207 yards and three touchdowns, and threw in a 95-yard kickoff return touchdown for good measure.
A big reason behind the Trojans’ surge is Martin and new play-caller Mitch Walters deciding to ride the Trojans’ burgeoning star and leading voice, Holley, who has accepted the burden and thrived.
“We’re trying to get the ball more to him and his productivity has been going up each week,” said Martin.
“So we’re not gonna stop.”