Maryland linebacker Alex Twine embraces freedom of special teams

September 12, 2013
(Doug Kapustin for The Washington Post) (Doug Kapustin for The Washington Post)

On his best summer vacations, before the grind of preseason football ravages his body, Alex Twine goes to the beach. The Maryland linebacker unfolds a towel, curls his toes into the sand and dozes away the afternoon. Sleep becomes a precious commodity once Twine and his teammates report to camp. Rigid structures and early wake-up calls ensure that. But resting by the waves relaxes Twine. It makes him feel free.

In his best moments on the football field, Alex Twine flies down the field on kickoff coverage at almost reckless speed, untouched and careering towards the football. He breezes past blockers. He dives at ballcarriers. On defense, Twine felt constrained by schemes and assignments. Special teams is simpler. Mindless, even. See ball, hit ball.

“It’s a different feeling,” Twine says. “It’s more like a feeling of being free.”

This summer, when Twine learned Matt Robinson had won a starting job after converting from safety to linebacker, relegating the junior to special teams duty, he withdrew. A week passed. Then another. He felt helpless, desperate for guidance, so when family members suggested he pray, he knelt down every morning before his bed and asked for answers. He never prayed much before, but this was different.

Before long, Twine started focusing on the micro. Classes commanded his thoughts. He blocked out everything else. At practice, rather than lament a first-string spot lost, he focused on pushing Robinson to improve. Special teams wasn’t a death sentence, he realized, but another opportunity to contribute. To cover kickoffs and punts like he did running backs and wide receivers. To become the guy again.

“It takes the place of being a starter,” Twine said, “because I have so much pride in it.”

On Saturday against Old Dominion, Brad Craddock kicked off eight times. The Monarchs downed two of them for touchbacks. Of the six they returned, Twine recorded tackles five times. He remembers his preseason conversation with special teams coach Andre Powell, when he promised to embrace a role he never wanted before. He set new goals for himself. If Robinson would start at linebacker, Twine would make the game’s first tackle. He would be the first name the public address announcer calls.

Tackled by Alex Twine.

By the game’s second kickoff, Twine knows his blocker. He knows how the blocker will move, and how to exploit it. Last weekend, the Monarchs threw a double-team at Twine. He looked up and saw an open lane between him and the returner. He shot through and hurled himself onto Aaron Evans, tackling him at the Old Dominion 16-yard line.

“It’s just a good feeling,” Twine said. “I get excited when, at the end of plays like that, because you know you did something good and you set the tone for the drive coming up.”

In these moments, accelerating like an airplane on the runway, Twine forgets about defense and the nine career starts he brought into this season, only to be told that a backup job awaited him. His forced fumble against Florida International gave Maryland possession in the Panthers red zone. Of his nine tackles this season, eight have come on special teams. He takes pride in his coverage now, because one stuffed return resonates.

“It lets you just go,” he says. “You can let go. You don’t have to think. It’s mindless in a way. You do have assignments. But then again you just go down there and you hit the ball. There’s nothing really to it.”

Sitting at a table inside Gossett Team House on Wednesday afternoon, Twine rolled up his right sleeve to reveal a tall tattoo. A young boy faces away, looking up at a staircase. It’s Kyree Twine, Alex’s younger brother. He passed away when Twine was young, many years ago. Twine regularly visits Kyree’s grave with his parents, and got the tattoo to carry his memory with him. So Kyree comes wherever Alex goes. Flying down the field. Reckless in pursuit. Peaceful and free.

“I knew when I got it,” Twine says, “I’m going to want it forever.”

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Alex Prewitt covers the Washington Capitals. Follow him on Twitter @alex_prewitt or email him at alex.prewitt@washpost.com.
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