Terps' Heyward-Bey Has Talent to Go
Monday, August 4, 2008
Unable to fully describe in words the transformation the Maryland coaching staff sought in its marquee wide receiver, offensive coordinator James Franklin rose from the black chair behind his desk to demonstrate. At first leaning forward with his elbows bent at 90-degree angles, Franklin jerked his back straight, spread his shoulders wide and sank his hips.
When this happens, Franklin said, a receiver's weight shifts to his heels, and he starts to slip as he makes his cut. This makes Franklin think back to the Darrius Heyward-Bey he used to know, the one who ran like a high school track star rather than a division I-A football player.
You don't have to come to an immediate stop and change directions at full speed in a 100-meter dash like you do when you're executing a 12-yard hitch route on third and seven. Heyward-Bey knows that now.
As he enters his junior season with the Terrapins, who open practice today in College Park, the 6-foot-3 wide receiver yearns to shed his reputation as simply a burner, a guy with blazing speed who can beat cornerbacks on go routes but do little else. He is considered one of the fastest players in the ACC, and yet that compliment does not inspire the self-assurance one might imagine.
"I think more than anything, he's a conscientious person," Franklin said. "I think people calling him a track guy and all that kind of stuff, as a football player, I think kind of puts a little bit of a chip on his shoulder."
Ironically, the shoulders were where Heyward-Bey's adjustments needed to begin. As a sprinter at McDonogh High School in Owings Mills, Md., Heyward-Bey earned first-team all-American honors in the indoor 60-meter dash with his ability to explode out of the blocks, back straight, shoulders wide. His near-perfect form earned him scholarship offers from well-known track programs, such as Louisiana State and Florida.
Heyward-Bey chose to play football at Maryland, where, according to former wide receivers coach Bryan Bossard, the coaches had to "deprogram how he was taught to run." They had to teach him to lower his center of gravity, to run leaning forward with his shoulders over his toes.
At first, Heyward-Bey said, the transition was a struggle. In high school, the routine had been simple -- sprint off the line, blow past the secondary, catch the deep throw, accelerate toward the end zone. It wasn't until Heyward-Bey was introduced to intermediate routes that he realized the value of speed on the football field depreciates without the ability to come to an abrupt halt.
"You've got to be able to run full-speed ahead and stop on a dime for your breaks and your cuts," Heyward-Bey said. "So that was difficult for me, to run so fast and stop and come back and catch the ball and then pick it up again."
As a redshirt freshman in 2006, Heyward-Bey earned second team all-ACC honors after leading the Terrapins with 45 receptions and 694 receiving yards, both freshman records. But speed remained his calling card. His 96-yard touchdown catch in Week 10 against Miami demolished the record for longest play in program history. On that play it was as if the lanky wide receiver were back in high school -- sprint, catch, sprint.
Heyward-Bey's numbers increased in 2007 (51 receptions, 786 receiving yards), but his development stagnated. Opposing teams began game-planning specifically for him and frequently sent double-team protection his way. Too often he would revert to his old running form and allow cornerbacks to see what was coming.
"Defensive backs watch for body language," said Bossard, now the wide receivers coach at Pittsburgh after spending the past three seasons in College Park. "If you're running tall, the defender can see your shoulders move and that decreases separation on the catch because defenders can anticipate the break points in a cut on a route."
Heyward-Bey had the intimidation part down. When he peered out from underneath his helmet at the line of scrimmage, he could see the cornerback ahead of him backpedaling a few extra steps.
"If he knows I'm faster than him, of course he's going to be a little bit scared," he said. "He doesn't want to get beat going deep."
But his ability to create a cushion between himself and the defender still needed some attention. Over the past six months, Franklin said Heyward-Bey worked diligently to improve his route-running technique. Still standing in his office, Franklin bends his knees and lowers his shoulders. He plants his right foot and looks up to point out his weight is over his feet. A receiver comes out of his cut faster that way, he says before rolling his chair back underneath him and taking a seat.
"If you can put the fear of God in a guy that you're going to run right by him, which [Heyward-Bey] should be able to do, then if he can drop his hips, stick his foot in the ground and change direction and catch the ball, now when he turns around, he should have three or four yards to make a guy miss and make a big play," Franklin said. "That's what we've got to get done."