When Darnerien McCants played at Delaware State, the 6-foot-3 wide receiver used a sinewy frame to outmuscle smaller defensive backs, blazing speed to get by cornerbacks and the leaping ability of a slam-dunk champion for acrobatic catches. Often facing Division I-AA players who were less gifted athletically, McCants became one of the most prolific players in school history, garnering NFL attention rare for someone from his school.
But after McCants was selected by the Washington Redskins in the fifth round of the 2001 draft, he quickly realized the physical tools that once gave him an edge were nothing special in the NFL. Instead, McCants was suddenly viewed at an inferior player because other wideouts possessed qualities he always overlooked: Fundamentals and technique.
"At the I-AA, I used my size," the 210-pound McCants said Friday. "Now up here, I've got to be a little bit smarter than just: 'Okay, I'm bigger than this guy. I'm going to get the ball.' Here, coach gets on me a lot about details, as far as my routes, what I'm reading in the coverages."
The Redskins were enticed enough to sign McCants, but his raw skills caused the club to put the wideout on the inactive list every game last season.
McCants, 24, expected this season to be another developmental one. But with Spurrier shuffling wideouts like a black jack dealer, trying to come up with an ace, McCants will make his NFL regular season debut tonight against the Indianapolis Colts at FedEx Field.
"He hasn't played all year," said Spurrier, who activated McCants against the Eagles and 49ers but didn't play him. "We're going to give Darnerien a chance -- see what he can do."
McCants -- who will play when the Redskins use multiple-receiver sets -- has been inactive in four games, including the past three. There's no doubt about McCants's talents but questions remain about whether he's fundamentally sound enough to contribute in games.
"He has good size, and he can run," said wide receiver Jacquez Green, who's likely to lose playing time. "There's always potential if you have good size and you can run. But you have to know what you're doing on the field. I'm like most of the fans and coaches: Waiting to see what he can do in the game."
For McCants to stay in the rotation, he must master the nuances that weren't essential to dominate college. The challenge is multiplied because Spurrier is so persnickety about passing routes.
"He's still trying to find his niche right now," said wide receiver Rod Gardner. "He's gotten a whole lot better from when he first got here last year. He was just running around and coaches had to correct him."
Rookie quarterback Patrick Ramsey can empathize with McCants because both players are viewed as having a bright future -- once they pick up the offense. "He's the total package as a receiver, physically," Ramsey said. "It's just him learning to get to the right place at the right time."
McCants displayed his talents in the preseason opener with two tantalizing touchdowns during a 38-7 victory over the San Francisco 49ers in Osaka, Japan. McCants made an acrobatic catch among two defenders for a 14-yard score and in a 44-yard touchdown that coaches and teammates still rave about. It came after McCants caught a pass on a slant before breaking two tackles as if in the Madden NFL 2003 video game. (A 49ers defensive back was called for pass interference, but it didn't matter because McCants used his size to make the catch anyway.) "That was impressive," said Steve Spurrier Jr., the wide receivers coach. "Not many people can do that."
McCants showed the skills of a tight end, punt returner and wideout, positions he played during his senior season at Delaware State. Such versatility helped McCants record 18 touchdowns, the most in Division I-AA in 2000 and a school and Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference record. But because of the ostensibly lesser competition, McCants is the first Delaware State player drafted since 1992, when the Dallas Cowboys selected guard Rod Milstead in the fifth round. "It was a big leap, just because at the I-AA, you're not going against top competition every week," said McCants, who was chosen No. 154 overall. "You'd have teams that you could pretty much chalk up [a victory].
"And up here, you never know what's going to happen. Like they say, any given Sunday."
Practicing against defensive backs like Champ Bailey and Fred Smoot for the past two years has helped McCants become acclimated to the NFL. Now, the young receiver plans on adding some fundamentals to the funk.
"They helped me out a lot," McCants said. "The raw talent was there. So all I had to do was learn -- I'm still learning the details of the game."