The New England Patriots are learning what folks down in Jacksonville, Fla., have known for years: Demario Douglas is a darn good football player.

The 5-foot-8, 192-pound slot receiver has been a training camp sensation in his first NFL summer. He’s broken ankles with his quick-twitch route-running, breezed past would-be tackles in 1-on-1 drills and even shown off his blocking chops.

Though most of his targets in competitive team drills have come from backup quarterback Bailey Zappe, Douglas has seen daily reps with Mac Jones and the starting offense, evidence that New England views the sixth-round rookie as a legit candidate to not just crack the 53-man roster, but also help the team this season. He’s also returned punts and kickoffs.

The man they call “Pop” quickly is becoming a fan favorite — and winning over his veteran teammates.

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“Pop Shotta, that’s my guy,” Jones said after Thursday’s practice. “He’s a great kid, works really hard. … He’s actually from my hometown. He’s kind of a legend down in Jacksonville.”

What kind of legend? We reached out to Bobby Ramsay, who coached Douglas at Jacksonville’s Mandarin High School, to find out.

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Evidently, Douglas’ exploits as a youth football player earned him city-wide notoriety in Duval County.

“He was a Pop Warner legend, no doubt,” Ramsay told on Thursday. “That was the first thing you heard about him when he came to Mandarin — him as a youth player. He was definitely a guy who had made a name for himself … on the Pop Warner circuit down here. He was a kid that had done it big at that level.”

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“When the Patriots drafted him, I was like, ‘Oh, my God. That’s the perfect place for him.’ “

Demario Douglas’ high school coach, Bobby Ramsay

High school-age Douglas, though, was not a world-beater, at least not at first. He attended Pedro Menendez High in St. Augustine, Fla., for his first two years, then transferred to Mandarin ahead of his junior season.

Ramsay arrived at Mandarin the same year Douglas did. He’d hit the geographic lottery at his previous coaching stop, Yulee High School, where he happened to overlap with Derrick Henry, one of the single most dominant high school athletes in history.

With Henry, who averaged more than 250 rushing yards per game during his four years at Yulee before starring for Alabama and the Tennessee Titans, Ramsey and his staff knew from the time he was in middle school that he’d be an NFL-caliber prospect. That wasn’t the case with Douglas.

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“If you would have told me in 2017, my first year at Mandarin, that Poppa was going to play in the NFL, I would have completely discredited you as a football (evaluator),” said Ramsay, who’s now the head coach at Impact Christian Academy in Jacksonville. “I would have been like, ‘Well, that’s really cool, but I don’t think that’s going to (happen).’

“And that’s nothing against him as a person. The first year was a mess there. We weren’t a great team. We struggled offensively, so he didn’t have great stats.”

Ramsay recalled a near miss Douglas had in the final game of his junior year. He broke off a long kick return as time expired in the first half, only to be chased down at the 5-yard line.

“I remember thinking, ‘He’s just missing that extra gear. It’s not quite there yet,’ ” the coach said. “And then the next season, he’s taking 8-yard slants 80 yards to the house. His improvement from his junior year to his senior year … was just phenomenal.”

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In that lackluster junior year, Douglas caught 26 passes for 270 yards and six touchdowns for a team that went 2-8. A half-decent season, but nothing special. Definitely not enough to stand out in a football-rich state like Florida, especially when you’re 5-foot-8 and weigh 165 pounds, as Douglas did at the time.

Then, as a senior, he exploded. He racked up 72 catches for 1,382 yards — an average of 92.1 per game — and 16 touchdowns as Mandarin made a Cinderella run to the Class 8A state championship. He also intercepted eight passes as a defensive back.

What changed? Ramsay said Douglas “really improved” athletically, getting “a lot faster (and) a lot stronger.” He meshed well with quarterback Carson Beck — who’s expected to become Georgia’s new starter this season — and became “just a much more physical player.”

By season’s end, he was borderline unstoppable. Douglas was the first player ever to catch four touchdown passes in the Florida state finals, doing so in a 37-35 win over previously undefeated Miami Columbus. He caught nine passes for 141 yards in that game and grabbed one interception on defense.

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“Once he became the player he became in high school,” Ramsay said, “now I can say that none of this is really surprising.”

That may be so, but Douglas’ superb 2018 season didn’t move the needle for big-time college programs. According to Ramsay, the only FBS offer he received was from Liberty, which had just made the jump from the lower-level FCS one year earlier. Douglas’ Liberty bio indicated he also had offers from Florida Atlantic and UAB.

Regardless, Power Five schools weren’t interested in the diminutive wideout.

“Because of his height and the way recruiting is now, none of the big schools offered him,” Ramsay said.

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So, Liberty it was. Douglas started slowly there, too, catching nine passes in four games as a true freshman in 2019, then steadily climbed. He had 32 receptions in 2020, 52 in 2021 and a team-leading 79 for 993 yards and six touchdowns in 2022. The Flames’ second-leading receiver had 54 fewer catches and 547 fewer receiving yards.

Douglas also ripped off a 75-yard rushing touchdown last season and returned kickoffs and punts.

“He’s sneaky strong and tough,” Ramsay said, echoing what Patriots safety Jabrill Peppers said about Douglas early in camp. “He’s a small guy, but he’s a physical football player. He might not be imposing in stature, but he doesn’t get pushed around. He’s going to do what he’s got to do to catch the ball.”

That stellar senior campaign earned Douglas invites to the NFL Scouting Combine and the 2023 East-West Shrine Bowl, where he spent a week working with the Patriots’ coaching staff. New England’s coaches liked what they saw from Douglas at that all-star showcase, but Ramsay sensed a stronger level of interest from a different team: the Los Angeles Rams.

Ramsay, who said several NFL teams contacted him about Douglas during the pre-draft process, knew the Rams “had done a lot of homework” on him. Sean McVay typically prefers taller receivers, but LA did draft 5-9, 165-pound Tutu Atwell in the second round two years earlier, so there was precedent for them taking a player of Douglas’ stature.

With the Rams owning six picks between the second half of Round 5 and the early part of Round 6, Ramsay was convinced they’d grab Douglas. But they passed each time, taking a different wideout, 6-foot-2 Puka Nacua out of BYU, with one of those selections (No. 177).

Douglas’ draft-day wait finally ended at pick No. 210, when New England selected him as part of a receiver double-dip with LSU’s Kayshon Boutte (No. 187).

“And then all of a sudden, he goes to the Patriots,” Ramsay said, “and you’re just like, ‘Man, that couldn’t have gone any better.’ “

Ramsay knew about the Patriots’ history of turning overlooked wideouts into key cogs in their offense. Their last two leading receivers were an undrafted player (Jakobi Meyers) and a seventh-round converted QB (Julian Edelman).

“I knew if he got drafted, he was going to make a great impression and do well in whatever organization (picked him), and when the Patriots drafted him, I was like, ‘Oh, my God. That’s the perfect place for him,’ ” Ramsay said. “… Just knowing that they were going to give him a real opportunity. They’re not an organization that’s just going to draft a guy in the later rounds and say, ‘Ah, screw it. We’re just going to put him on the practice squad.’ “

The Patriots gave Douglas plenty of opportunities in the opening week of training camp, and he capitalized, emerging as the clear front-runner among New England’s roster-hopeful receivers. He’s exclusively worked with the offensive regulars in walkthrough periods since camp began, repping alongside JuJu Smith-Schuster, DeVante Parker, Kendrick Bourne and Tyquan Thornton, and he aced each of his first two rounds of 1-on-1 drills, with a 5-0 record and four eye-popping wins over 2022 third-round pick Marcus Jones.

It would be surprising at this point if Douglas was left off the Week 1 roster, even though he still needs to prove he can win against NFL defenses in a game setting. His first chance to do that will come next Thursday when the Patriots open the preseason against the Houston Texans at Gillette Stadium.

“He was very good in 7-on-7 (growing up) because he showed that quickness so often,” Jones said. “He’s always got the separation, but he just has to realize that it’s the NFL and you’ve got to do it every day. He’s going to try his best to do that. I’m proud of him, but he’s also — you know, it’s early. We’ve got to keep working.”

Still work to be done, certainly. But this local legend is off to a superb start.

“I’m not at all surprised that they’ve taken a liking to him,” Ramsay said.

Featured image via Eric Canha/USA TODAY Sports Images