Quality Trumping Quantity

Wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey is averaging 24.2 yards per touch.
Wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey is averaging 24.2 yards per touch. (By Joel Richardson For The Washington Post)
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By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 2, 2008

Midway through the third quarter on Saturday, Maryland quarterback Chris Turner gathered his teammates in the huddle and announced the play: Fake 39 Z Reverse Right. At that moment, after 35 minutes had ticked off the clock, wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey knew he finally would touch the ball.

Because few players can affect a game so dramatically by touching the ball just once in 60 minutes -- as Heyward-Bey did on his 76-yard reverse that abruptly shifted the momentum in the 20-17 victory at Clemson -- it raises questions as to why Maryland's most explosive player, who did not have a catch Saturday, has not touched the ball more this season.

The junior is one of four players in the country this season to have two plays of 75 yards or more, and he has averaged 31 yards per carry, tops among division I-A wide receivers. He has amassed 186 rushing yards on six carries, which is six more rushing yards than the entire Southern Methodist team has gained on 79 carries.

But he has made just 12 catches through five games and ranks outside the top 100 nationally in receiving yards per game, which means his opportunities have been more about quality than quantity. When asked about getting the ball more to Heyward-Bey, Maryland Coach Ralph Friedgen said the list of plays designed for Heyward-Bey grows each week and that "Darrius is always going to be a major part of our game plan. We are going to do what we have to do, but he has to do it, too."

Friedgen said Heyward-Bey dropped two passes Saturday and could not catch two others because of Clemson's coverage. And despite playing a key role in the biggest victory of the season, Heyward-Bey offered teammates a message in the huddle in the game's final seconds: "I apologize for my performance today."

Surprised by the self-critique, some teammates simply answered, "We won!"

After watching tape of his performance, Heyward-Bey gave his route running a B, his decision making a C-minus, his pass catching a D and his running an A-minus. And he called it "my worst game of the season."

He said he dropped one pass and should have caught another ball even though it was not perfectly thrown. He said Clemson did not do anything specifically to shut him down until late in the game, when a cornerback and linebacker moved in his direction and Turner looked away and made a key second-and-12 completion over the middle to Danny Oquendo for 11 yards on Maryland's final scoring drive.

Clemson Coach Tommy Bowden said he was surprised the Tigers held Heyward-Bey without a catch, adding: "He is really talented and has become a polished receiver over the years. He has great explosion and speed. I did not think that would happen."

Heyward-Bey is averaging 24.2 yards every time he touches the ball, which prompted offensive coordinator James Franklin to say, "Probably means he should touch the ball." But Heyward-Bey has touched the ball just 18 times this season. Turner threw three of his first six passes Saturday in Heyward-Bey's direction, but he did not throw toward Heyward-Bey once in the second half.

"We have to be creative enough to have all different ways to get his hands on the ball," Franklin said. "From a throwing standpoint, a running standpoint, whatever we have to do."

Each week, Franklin takes the game plan and copies all the plays in which Heyward-Bey is the first read into a separate section. Franklin wants a handful of plays immediately at his disposal for a player who can change the game at any moment.

"He is a game-breaker in the fullest sense," Virginia Coach Al Groh said. "Certainly it has not been a one-man deal, but he really has been the catalyst in every game. . . . He has an impact not just on the game, but how they play in the game."

That was evident Saturday. Franklin felt the reverse could have worked on Maryland's second series because Clemson was over-pursuing, but he did not call it. Maryland talked about it at halftime, but Heyward-Bey still did not know when it would be called. In the third quarter, Franklin initially wanted to call it on a second-down play, but because Maryland had struggled mightily on third down, he did not want to face third and long if it backfired.

"Finally I said, 'Enough is enough,' " Franklin said. "I set that play up just long enough to almost lose the game. I should have called it earlier."

On first down at the Maryland 20 with 9 minutes 54 seconds left in the third quarter, Turner handed off the ball to running back Da'Rel Scott, who handed it to Heyward-Bey, who got a sound block from right tackle Dane Randolph and saw open space. He saw a cornerback in his path, so at the 50 he cut across the field, making one defender miss. But he knew his angle was poor because he was running wide instead of straight. He switched the football to his left hand and sprinted to the left sideline, but was flung out of bounds by safety Michael Hamlin at the Clemson 4.

Center Edwin Williams couldn't help but think, "Just imagine if we had gotten the ball in his hands earlier."

Staff writer Zach Berman contributed to this report.

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