NEW ORLEANS — John Creech invested a lot of time — a couple years, in fact — convincing Josh Paul that effort in the weight room was worth it. As De La Salle High School’s defensive coordinator and strength coach, Creech watched Paul every day with increasing frustration.
Here was a freakishly-talented athlete — a linebacker with the skill set to earn a Division I scholarship — who Creech seemed unable to reach. Paul rarely would go low enough when he squatted. Really, he did the barest of bare minimums it required to get through a workout. Creech tried berating him. He tried explaining to Paul the consequences of not taking the weight room seriously enough.
“Do you wanna play in the SEC or at some D3 school?” Creech would ask Paul.
At some point between his sophomore and junior years, it all clicked. And when that happened — and Paul began seeing the results — everything changed. Paul’s new attitude was contagious and spread to his teammates, creating two of the best football seasons in school history.
Paul’s strength and speed exploded, resulting in Division I scholarship offers. He committed to Arkansas in June 2016 and never wavered, signing with the Hogs in February. He will finally arrive on campus in July, in time for Arkansas’ second summer session.
“For guys like him, it isn’t a huge struggle to get stronger and get faster,” Creech said. “All they gotta do is work.
“I used to jump his ass all the time. He bought in and as soon as he bought in, it changed our culture.”
Creating a great football program
De La Salle High School — located on beautiful, tree-lined Saint Charles Avenue in New Orleans — has always been known for its academics. When Ryan Manale arrived as the new football coach in 2012, there were only 28 players in the program.
“My goal and vision was to give a great academic institute a great football program,” Manale said.
A talent like Paul — who was an eighth grader when Manale took over — came at just the right time. De La Salle coaches say he probably would have been a very good high school linebacker even without the extra effort in the weight room.
Manale said Paul was more passionate about basketball, and that might have been part of the problem. Paul acknowledges that basketball did interfere with football offseason training.
After Paul didn’t play as much as he wanted during his sophomore season, he said something changed in his weight room approach.
“I felt like I was good enough to play more, so I just started working,” Paul said.
“That summer was the hardest I’ve ever worked in my life. Once I did that, I figured it out and it started coming easier to me.”
The results were drastic. Paul began to see his body change and his strength increase, which only motivated him more.
Squatting 225 pounds was a struggle for Paul when the transformation began. That number shot up to 275 in no time and ended up being around 475 when Paul was finished at De La Salle.
And then, things changed for the De La Salle program as Paul’s teammates saw him work.
“When you see your best athlete start to really buy in, not skip a rep and do everything the coaches ask, then everyone around him wants to be that guy,” Manale said. “The success there started turning over to the field.
“One guy can’t do it alone in football. There are a lot of SEC-type players on teams below .500, but Josh lifted his whole team up.”
De La Salle went 9-2 during the 2015 season — Paul’s junior year — and then completed an undefeated regular season when Paul was a senior.
Paul recorded 74 tackles — 9 for loss — and 2 interceptions as a senior, when the Cavaliers finished 11-1 and reached the state semifinals.
And it wasn’t just the weight room where those around the De La Salle program saw improvement from Paul and, as a result, others.
Robbie Porche, the team’s physical therapist, said that it became easier to get compliance from players on matters such as nutrition and pregame stretching.
“He’s not a guy who cramps, needs to be stretched,” Porche said. “He’s a guy who just takes it upon himself to do his own thing. He’s low maintenance from an athletic trainer standpoint. In this day and age, it’s a little hard to get compliance when it comes to that kind of stuff. But Josh was always on point.
“Josh was one of the integral components of creating a culture of self-discipline and responsibility here.”
Somebody’s always watching
Paul’s maturity allowed him to eventually get the attention of big-time college coaches, and here he is today, about to become an SEC linebacker.
But even after he committed to Arkansas, Paul’s intensity and hard-work attitude didn’t fade.
“I wanted to get the program better and push everybody else to be better,” Paul said. “The program will still be there once I leave. It’s not just about me. It’s about everybody. It’s a team. It’s a family.”
He added of De La Salle High School: “It changed my life, man.”
Paul believes he could have ended up going down a much different path if not for the influences and experience he had at De La Salle.
“I was making good decisions instead of bad decisions,” he said. “It’s easy to get caught up in violence and other types of things. School kept me away from all that stuff.”
And maybe it was Creech and Manale constantly breathing down his neck in the weight room or maybe it was just a general awakening, but Paul came to a realization as he became a team leader: Somebody is always watching him.
“Once I started getting attention, I realized that you can’t live your life making mistakes,” Paul said. “I know for a fact that somebody is always watching, whether I see them or don’t. I think about that.
“How would this person feel if I do that? It could be little kids. It could be a coach. It could be a random person.”
The eyes on Paul are going to become more glaring as a Division I football player, but he feels prepared for that.
And the football program he’s leaving behind is in terrific shape. Paul was the first Division I football signee from De La Salle since 2003, but already there are signs that it won’t be that long until the next time. Senior-to-be defensive back Lance Robinson just committed to Kansas State.
“With him being the first one to really go big to the SEC, people now think, ‘Hey, maybe I can do it too,’” said De La Salle receiver Aaron Marquez. “He started a trend here.”
Added Manale, “Now, everybody wants to be the next Josh Paul.”
Arkansas beat writer Jason Kersey traveled around the country visiting the Razorbacks’ 2017 signees for SEC Country’s “NextGen” series. Read his past 2017 NextGen stories at this link.