The most dangerous quarterback in Northern Virginia stands flat-footed in the pocket, his body completely motionless, his eyes casually scanning the field as his teammates zig-zag frantically before him. If the defenders facing him appear terrified of some impending doom, Demornay Pierson-El looks positively bored, seemingly more poised to curl up for a nap than do anything with the football in his hands.
Yet the West Springfield defense knows better than to underestimate its opponent’s talismanic assassin. No one on the defensive line dares to encroach on his space, lest they stir their predator into attack mode. A pass rush would prompt improvisation, and no defender in his right mind wants any part in an improv show starring Demornay Pierson-El.
But with no receivers open and his team trailing 10-6, Pierson-El tucks the ball into his hip and decides he must sign the defense up for the show himself. Players and coaches on the West Springfield bench recognize their enemy’s intentions and let out a collective scream to warn the defense, as if the forecast will somehow ward off the hurricane creeping toward their shores.
Pierson-El shuffles idly to the side and, like a hiker at the start of his climb, surveys the space in front of him to pick out the most efficient route to the orange cones up ahead. He picks up speed going left, then confronts a defensive end and spins back toward the middle to have a second look downfield. Suddenly a small seam opens up the middle, prompting him to dart into the heart of the defense, stop on a dime, juke right, cut left and hit the turbo button toward the sideline. From there, it’s 11-on-1, a patently unfair scenario when all 11 guys are carrying sand in their shoes.
The pride of West Potomac High reaches his destination to put the Wolverines ahead 12-10, a lead they wouldn’t relinquish in a Monday night contest postponed by last Friday’s downpour. Pierson-El, determined to improve his struggling team to a 2-4 record, exerts his usual control over every phase of the game, launching quick strikes on offense, preventing air raids on defense and keeping opponents guessing on special teams. His three touchdown runs and three touchdown passes on this night point to even greater responsibilities than the ones he carried last season, when he rushed 181 times for 1,658 yards and 23 touchdowns. West Potomac’s starting quarterback went down with an injury during the team’s Aug. 29 opener against Centreville, forcing Pierson-El to spend his senior season taking snaps instead of handoffs.
The position switch hasn’t brought much of a learning curve. Through six games Pierson-El has put up five touchdown passes and zero interceptions, not to mention the 12 touchdown runs he’s collected. He’s got a big arm and a textbook throwing motion, something that comes in part from years of playing quarterback at the youth level. Perhaps more than that, though, is his indestructible love of football, something that allows him to thrive at any position on the field.
“It’s just having a hunger for the game,” said Pierson-El, who has had a hand in every West Potomac offensive touchdown this season. “I believe I have the willpower to do what’s needed.”
That willpower, combined with staggering athleticism, might even allow the 5-foot-9, 174-pound speedster to stand out as a defensive lineman if he were given the chance. At a recent practice, West Potomac head coach Jeremiah Davis ordered his star player to hop into a drill at defensive end and “go get to the ball.” So Pierson-El dutifully ran by the tight end, shook off two oncoming linemen and pinned the quarterback to the turf.
Davis shook his head at the memory. “He’s just a football player, man,” he said.
Only he isn’t just any football player. Oakton head coach Jason Rowley recalls the performance he witnessed three weeks ago, when Pierson-El was one missed extra-point away from single-handedly ruining the Cougars’ Homecoming game. He gashed the defending region champions that day for three touchdowns on the ground and one through the air in a 28-27 defeat.
“He’s as good a football player as I’ve seen,” Rowley said. “I’ve coached against Percy Harvin, Evan Royster and some other really good football players, and he’s as good as any of them.”
An exasperated Jason Eldredge was similarly effusive after his West Springfield team’s 47-29 loss on Monday. He likens Pierson-El to San Diego Chargers wideout Eddie Royal, who Eldredge used to coach while an assistant at Westfield High.
“He was a kid that we used in all different aspects of the game - on special teams, at receiver, whatever,” he said. “Demornay’s that kind of dynamic guy.”
Royal might be the most apt comparison, considering Pierson-El plans to play as a slot receiver and kick returner in college next year. While he’s unsure about redshirting his first season, Pierson-El is sure about the red shirt he’ll be donning at the University of Nebraska, the school to which he verbally committed last June. His explosiveness might give him an immediate impact on a team that has struggled to find playmakers on special teams in recent years, and his speed after the catch will no doubt make him lethal in the slot.
“I’m just trying to be a role player,” he said. “I’m just trying to be a key player in that offense. I want to be looked at as somebody who’s one of the best slot receivers in the conference, one of the best slot receivers in the country. I want to be a part of something and make it a threat. As of right now, that’s my only goal.”
Davis, now in his second season coaching at West Potomac, admires Pierson-El most for the heightened sense of maturity and leadership he’s adopted this year. The senior isn’t afraid of getting in a teammate’s face about a mistake, but his switch to the quarterback position has generally required a levelheaded approach on and off the field.
Still, it’s Pierson-El’s cat-like quickness that truly sets him apart. While he speculates his speed might come from his mother - once a track standout at the former Groveton High - Pierson-El attributes it also to countless hours spent grinding out explosive drills in the water, power cleans and weighted vest exercises. His 40-yard dash time currently sits at 4.5 seconds, but he’s been told he can hit 4.3.
“If you put somebody next to me, I think I could get it,” he said.
Judging by what he’s done to opposing defenses these past two years, you would think he could get it if they just put somebody in front of him. As long as the football stays in his hands, there’s no telling how far Pierson-El’s touchdown dashes will take him.