During the bye week, five Virginia players who could punt the ball lined up in a row and were told to follow a simple instruction: By the time true freshman Dominique Terrell caught one punt, the next one should already be in the air.
“We were just spraying them all over the field so he could get used to running all over the field, knowing that any ball that is in the air belongs to him and that he has the ability and the confidence to catch it,” said Marques Hagans, a graduate assistant who has worked with Terrell on punt returns since the second week of the season.
Terrell, who was named the Cavaliers’ primary punt returner at the season’s outset, has struggled in that role to the point where the coaches plan to have other players return punts in upcoming games.
Terrell’s main issue, Hagans said, is that he learned to field punts off a bounce in high school. But that strategy rarely is effective at the collegiate level, so now the coaches are trying to reprogram Terrell’s instincts to reflect the need for him to catch almost all the punts that come his way.
“That’s the way [Terrell] has done it for the majority of his career,” Hagans said of fielding punts off a bounce. “Most guys that do that, they’re just more comfortable letting it bounce. That way they can play the bounce and don’t have to necessarily run the risk of dropping the ball when they catch it straight out of the air.
“We’re just trying to get him to eliminate that fear of dropping the ball and catch everything. The ball is ours every time it’s in the air; that’s what we try to tell him. I think he’s doing a better job of getting the idea that we’re trying to get him to grasp. He’s coming along.”
Terrell said Virginia’s coaches first spoke to him about his potential as a punt returner in college during his junior year of high school. And since Coach Mike London promised him immediate, significant playing time during the final stages of his recruitment, it was no surprise to Terrell that he was named the team’s primary punt returner spot right off the bat.
But that didn’t mean he was fully prepared for the responsibility such a role entailed.
“I feel a lot more comfortable back there” now, Terrell said. “At the beginning of the season I was nervous. I didn’t want to touch the ball. I just wanted to let it hit the ground. But now, it’s like, whatever happens, happens. Make mistakes, make mistakes.”
Terrell said he loves the rush that accompanies the second stage of returning punts, the part where he has the ball in his hands and his only objective is to make opposing defenders miss. “It’s like playing backyard football,” he said. That part is fun. That’s the part he’s good at.
It’s that first stage – securing the ball in his hands – that he’s still trying to master. Terrell said that in the summer he frequently dropped punts because he could sense oncoming defenders, and it got to him. Now, he says, he’s more comfortable in that regard, and he’s dropping punts less often.
During practices, Hagans, special teams coordinator Anthony Poindexter and wide receivers coach Shawn Moore take turns hitting Terrell with then blue foam pads as he’s about to catch punts. The goal, Hagans said, is to create an element of distraction that Terrell has to overcome. Terrell noted that the coaches “don’t hit me too hard.”
“It allows him to understand that no matter who’s around him, his focus is ultimately on the ball and he can have no fear,” Hagans said. “Just trying to eliminate a lot of the fear of having people around him to keep him from missing the ball.”
Entrenched habits, though, are difficult to break, and it’s that aspect – not Terrell’s relative youth and inexperience – that Hagans believes is the primary cause of the player’s struggles.
Terrell said he still gets confused sometimes because there’s no way for him to know how or in what direction the ball is going to bounce if he lets a punt drop to the field. He also acknowledges sometimes thinking about the possibility and ramifications of fumbling the ball as he’s locating it in the air.
“When someone has been taught a certain way or has being doing things a certain way for a certain period of time, it becomes a habit,” Hagans said. “So now we’re just trying to reverse those habits so he gets used to catching it the way that we want him to and understanding that every time the ball is kicked and he lets it bounce, the field position that we’re losing is vital to the offense. Just trying to teach him the basic fundamentals of catching the punts and the basic mentality and philosophy of understanding that every ball that’s kicked must be caught.”
Hagans said Terrell possesses “unbelievable talent” and that the player “progressed a lot” during the bye week. How long it takes for Terrell to develop a sufficient and consistent comfort level in following Hagans’s “catch everything” mantra remains to be seen.
“You just hold on to him because you know you have something special there,” Hagans said. “In the long run, things will pan out. It may be a little bit rocky at first, which it has been. But his confidence will continue to grow, and just holding onto a kid like that and continuing to stick with him and believe in him, I think, increases his confidence each day. Once the light finally comes on and he gets it, the reward will be big.”