Two plays told Maryland’s veterans all they needed to know about Stefon Diggs. Both came Saturday against Connecticut, and neither included the hocus-pocus act the true freshman pulled on punt returns.
The first seems an aberration upon initial review. Quarterback Perry Hills, flushed out of the pocket by a Huskies blitz, heaved up a prayer towards the end zone. Blanketed by man-to-man coverage, receiver Marcus Leak tipped the pass and it fell into Diggs’s hands for a 29-yard touchdown.
It appeared a lucky matter of circumstance. Right place, right time, until you hear Diggs say that he’s noticed Hills’s passes stay airborne longer than the average quarterback, so he intentionally darted across the field once he saw Hills take aim at Leak.
“I’ve adjusted to Perry’s throws after being with him with for about a month now,” Diggs said. “It was all instinct, really. His floated a little while, so if it got tipped, maybe something good would happen.”
He was right.
“How many guys are going to realize, it’s one-on-one coverage, the ball’s thrown not to me but next to me, so all I’m going to do is play the whistle and run to the ball because it might be tipped,” Coach Randy Edsall said. “There’s a lot guys who wouldn’t have that instinct who have been playing for a long time. That’s something you might not even see in the NFL.”
The second play was, according to defensive lineman A.J. Francis, an example of instinctual knowledge not often found in teenagers. Late in the fourth quarter, Connecticut clinging to a 24-21 lead with the Terps driving, Hills found Diggs on a short route on third and nine. Weaving his way through would-be tacklers, Diggs got caught from his black cleats by linebacker Yawin Smallwood, but performed a Superman stretch past the first-down marker. The image became Diggs’s Twitter avatar.
“He’s a smart, young player along with his athleticism,” Francis said. “That play last week where he realized he wasn’t at the first down and dove past the marker, a lot of young guys aren’t smart enough to, in the game on the field, realize that you need to get this first down rather than make more guys miss. And he’s able to do both.”
Of course, Diggs’s work on special teams has proved his biggest contribution thus far. He ranks third in the ACC in punt return average (13.8) and is second-place ranking in all-purpose yards per game (147). Maybe he should have taken the safe route – “Eventually, I’m going to call a fair catch,” Diggs quipped Saturday – but he has frustrated opponents with his unpredictability and shiftiness in the return game, drawing comparisons to West Virginia’s Tavon Austin, with whom he’ll share Mountaineer Field this weekend.
Balancing football and school took time to figure out. Things began clicking his freshman and sophomore year in high school, when maturity began appearing. “I had perfect role models,” Diggs said, “I just had to see the light myself.”
“The athleticism, the dynamic plays, I kind of expected he could do those things,” Edsall said. “But I didn’t expect the experience, the knowledge of some of the things that you see that he’s doing, because again I think it’s rare to have a guy do some of the things we’ve seen him do out there.
“He’s still got a lot to work on in terms of fundamentals, route-running, technique. The thing I didn’t realize is how far along he is in terms of understanding and knowledge of the game.”