When Jazz Ferguson joined the football program at Northwestern State in Natchitoches, Louisiana, two years ago, he was arrogant, self-centered and undisciplined.
At least, those were the initial impressions team trainer Ashley Leggett Pugh observed working with the 6-foot-5 receiver.
“Coming from LSU, he thought he was this huge fish in a small pond. We had to knock him down a few pegs,” Leggett Pugh said in a phone interview this week. “He was cocky, and he only wanted to do what he wanted to do when he wanted to do it.
“He was,” she added sharply, “my least favorite person on the team — out of 115 players.”
Ferguson has acknowledged that a “dark cloud” hung over him when he arrived at Northwestern State. A one-time top-100 national recruit, he had been suspended as a sophomore at LSU for failing two drug tests, flunked out of school and was forced to drop down to the only program willing to take a chance on him, in the lower-level FCS, all while paying his own tuition as a walk-on scout-team player in 2017.
The experience, he said, was “most definitely humbling.”
Now in his first NFL training camp, Ferguson is one of the more intriguing rookies on the Seahawks’ roster, and one of his biggest fans back in Natchitoches will be monitoring closely when he plays his first preseason game Thursday night against Denver.
Leggett Pugh eventually became a close confidant for Ferguson. She, too, had come to Northwestern State from a major SEC school, and she challenged him to change his attitude.
“We connected,” said Leggett Pugh, an Alabama graduate who worked as a student trainer on the Crimson Tide’s 2012 national-championship team.
“I told him: ‘Look, Jazz, I’ve been at a big-time program too. I know what it’s like for guys there. But, dude, you’ve got to humble yourself and be a better person.’ He did what he did to put himself in that situation, and he needed to accept responsibility for the things that happened and start making changes.”
She now proudly boasts of his transformation during his year and a half at Northwestern State.
“By the end,” she said, “he was my favorite. He became the guy he needed to be.”
But before Ferguson would become, in Leggett Pugh’s words, a better person and a better teammate, and before he became one of the most productive receivers in the FCS, he first had to get his academics in order.
He cleared his first hurdle in the summer of 2017 when he passed two online community-college courses (he needed a grade-point average above 2.0 and got a 2.3). That allowed him to enroll in fall classes at Northwestern State. Once there, he had to work to become academically eligible while sitting out the 2017 season.
To pay his tuition, he worked at a catering company, starting out as a dishwasher, then working his way up to become a server.
“That one year sitting out was a long year,” he said.
Leggett Pugh noticed Ferguson’s newfound maturity in the spring of 2018. He was eligible to play again, and he was motivated.
“He had a better attitude and a better work ethic,” she said. “He realized, ‘If I’m going to be the guy, I have to prove it. I can’t just talk it.’ … He was doing extra after practice. He was being coachable. He started listening to people around here and realized we all had his best interest at heart.”
Ferguson has called his time in Natchitoches life-changing.
“They taught me different things,” he said. “It wasn’t like LSU, where you get everything taken care of (for you) all the time. I wasn’t on scholarship (at Northwestern State), so I had to work and pay for my semester in order to be in school — just like another student, really. So it was a humbling experience and made me grow up.”
In parts of two seasons at LSU, he appeared in 11 games, posting just two catches (both against Missouri in 2016). He finally broke out for Northwestern State last fall, ranking among the FCS leaders with 66 catches for 1,117 yards and 13 touchdowns in 11 games.
He declared for the NFL draft after the season, forgoing his senior year, and entered the same draft as his older brother, Jaylon, who at Louisiana Tech last fall set the NCAA record with 45 career sacks. The Baltimore Ravens drafted Jaylon in the third round of April’s draft; Jazz went undrafted, despite running a 4.45-second 40-yard dash at the NFL combine.
Almost immediately after the draft, Ferguson said he had free-agent offers from the Seahawks and Rams. Of Seattle, he said: “It didn’t really take too much convincing for me to come up here. This has always been a team I really liked and admired.”
At Seahawks rookie minicamp in May, coach Pete Carroll called out Ferguson publicly for his weight, and Ferguson said he pretty quickly shed 12 pounds while working out in the Houston heat earlier this summer. He reported back to Seattle to start training camp listed at 6 feet, 5 inches and 228 pounds.
“He got the message,” Carroll said.
Ferguson said he’s developed a bond with the Seahawks’ four other rookie receivers, and like everyone else, he’s also impressed with the team’s other big-bodied receiver, DK Metcalf.
“He really is the guy everyone says he’s going to be, and for me to learn from him — another guy with my type of body — it’s more that I can pick up on,” Ferguson said.
Ferguson had a team-leading four catches for 69 yards and two touchdowns in Saturday’s mock game in Bothell. His first touchdown was a 43-yard pass from Geno Smith initially deflected by a defensive back downfield. Ferguson’s second TD came on a 12-yard throw from Smith to give their team a walk-off victory.
“He’s done well; he’s done really well,” Carroll said after practice Monday. “He’s the biggest guy we have out here. He’s been a factor as a big guy … (and) he had a couple grabs again today.”
Ferguson says he’s matured. He spoke excitedly about the impending birth of his first child, a boy, due Sept. 29, and he said he’s taking seriously a tight competition to make an NFL roster.
“I feel like I’m close to the peak of my game,” he said. “I know (this opportunity) it’s not out of reach of me. I know I’ve been showing them what I can do and how fast I can learn the playbook, so it’s not out of reach.”