The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Terry McLaurin spent his college days preparing for the unexpected. In the NFL, it’s paid off.

Terry McLaurin takes the ball away from Philadelphia's Ronald Darby during Sunday's season opener. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

It was the spring of 2018, and there Terry McLaurin went again, running pass routes through the empty silence of Ohio State’s indoor football building. Before him wobbled a tall, red tackling dummy with protruding fake arms. A few yards away whirred a pitching machine. A graduate assistant fed footballs into the machine’s wheels until they spat out with a thwuck! that echoed off the walls.

What had the school’s coaches said was his weakness? Contested catches? Those plays they called 50-50 balls, where the receiver and defender seemed to have the same chance to catch the pass, fighting for control? No way he was going to have any weaknesses, so he had invented a drill in these months before his senior season, pretending the tackling dummy was a defensive back that he had to find a way to twist and jump around to catch the ball as it shot from the machine.

The machine hummed, the balls burst from its spinning wheels, and McLaurin kept running into that dummy, catching passes until dozens of those balls had burned into his hands and his arms ached. But he would be back again the next day and the day after that and the day after that, running more drills with the same dummy and the same machine, until every weakness was a strength, because someday it would all matter.

Then on Sunday, in his first Washington Redskins game, it did. More than a year after those days alone with the machine and the dummy, a pass was flying toward him and Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Ronald Darby. They jumped together, the ball landing, for an instant, in each of their hands — a classic 50-50 ball — then at the last second, McLaurin yanked it from Darby’s grasp, falling to the ground with the ball pressed against his chest.

And later, after a game in which McLaurin announced his arrival with a dazzling 69-yard touchdown catch, the play he cared about most was the catch that didn’t make the postgame highlights.

“I worked extremely hard behind closed doors to improve that, and to see it come to fruition …” he said, trailing off.

Svrluga: Jay Gruden was already on shaky ground. Benching Adrian Peterson didn’t help.

He smiled. It was still early in the week after the whirlwind of a first game, which came after the whirlwind of a summer in which he went from a third-round draft pick the Redskins hoped could be a good special teams player and reserve wideout into one of their top offensive threats. A few days before they had released Josh Doctson, a wide receiver picked in the first round in 2016, because they thought McLaurin could be good. And then he turned out to be better than they imagined.

For many young players, this would have been a lot, moments for which they weren’t ready. But on the day after announcing himself to the NFL, McLaurin stood in the hall outside the Redskins’ locker room and looked as if he had been waiting forever for this day to come.

“I feel like I have a maturity that is beyond my years. I hear that from a lot of people — my teammates, coaches, not just people here but people in the past,” the 23-year-old said.

Brian Hartline understands. The former Ohio State and later Dolphins and Browns wideout had returned to his college as an interim wide receivers coach in 2017 and was later promoted to the full-time job in 2018. He was the one who told McLaurin, during one of their many long talks, that he needed to get better at contested catches. He suggested drills, but it was McLaurin who did the work. Hour after hour, alone with that machine and the dummies.

It didn’t take Hartline long to understand McLaurin was different from other college athletes. How many players graduate in 3½ years and decide to stick around for another 1½ because they think it will make them better? How many players at a place such as Ohio State are named team captains not just one year but two?

“He’s very diligent and has a clear focus,” Hartline said.

Hartline spent years in the NFL watching players jog through individual workouts in practice. He hated that. Anyone can catch 100 passes from a pitching machine, he believes. But he likes to re-create situations, making obstacles that replicate the unpredictable things that happen in games.

“Do you play with your mind?” Hartline asks his players. Often, he asks himself, “How do you create a situation where something occurs in a game and you already did it in the arena?”

In McLaurin, he found he had a player hungry to know, too. He had another drill at Ohio State where he would stand behind a line of those tackling dummies, unable to see the machine shooting out passes, until at the last minute he would slap one of the wobbling dummies aside and reach out to grab the ball just as the dummy crashed back into his arm. He did it again and again until he no longer cared if he could barely see the quarterback and defenders knocking into him as he tried to catch the ball.

“People think you drop the ball because of your hands,” McLaurin said. “Mostly it’s your eyes. You got to train your eyes. Rarely do you catch the ball cleanly.”

When the pro scouts came this past winter, they brought a list of the things they were sure McLaurin couldn’t do. He was fast, they said, but his routes weren’t perfect. They didn’t think he could block. He wasn’t great at those contested catches. Hartline listened, and then he laughed.

“I can’t tell you what he can’t do well,” he kept telling the scouts. “I can’t tell you he can’t catch. I can’t tell you he can’t run. I can’t tell you he can’t block. I can’t tell you he isn’t smart. I can’t tell you he doesn’t work hard.”

What about this did they not understand?

So far, the scouts with doubts look wrong. Two days before the Redskins’ first game, offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell was talking about McLaurin and the way he runs his routes.

“I think the biggest thing is just the details,” O’Connell said.

The routes that Washington’s receivers run often start the same but split into different directions. There’s a lot to know, and everything has to be precise.

“The detail he takes [from] the meeting room to the practice field and the game field allows us to ask him to run various parts of the route tree,” O’Connell added.

Standing in the hallway outside the Redskins’ locker room this week, McLaurin said worrying about the details was easy. Everything he knows about work and diligence and desire came from his parents, Terry Sr. and Grace. His father sells cars back home in Indianapolis, which is a grind in itself. If you don’t sell any cars, you don’t make any money — and the only way to sell cars is to always be in the dealership, ready when the next customer walks through the door.

McLaurin grew up watching this hustle, his father leaving early and coming home late. He noticed that as his father became more successful there was money for private schools for him and his sister, and then college tuition for his sister after he got a scholarship to Ohio State.

“They taught me faith and hard work,” he said. “If you have those two things, you can do anything.”

On Sunday he was in the place he always imagined, on an NFL field for the first time, and everything seemed normal. The stadium felt smaller than the one at Ohio State. He ran past the Eagles defenders the way he blew by defensive backs in college games. He had five catches for 125 yards and the long touchdown, and while that seemed like a lot to everyone else, it was what he expected to do.

He had put in the work, hadn’t he? He doesn’t want to sound cocky, he said, because his parents told him to always be humble. And while humble is hard when you’re an NFL wide receiver, he does not like bragging.

But he is sure there is a reward for all of his time spent trying to create an unexpected moment that others might not have imagined, so that when that situation comes, he will be the one who is least surprised.

“I try to go about my life on a consistent basis so everything else can fall in line, so I’m not scrambling,” he said. “The way I study my plays, the way I do my routine outside of football, the way I try to have balance in my life — my family, my friends — it really allows me to mitigate the crazy things that happen.

“Obviously, not everything is going to go as you planned,” he added.

Which is why you spend hours and hours trying to invent those instances when it won’t.

More on the Redskins:

The Redskins say they have a great defensive line. The numbers don’t show it.

Inside the four drives that doomed the Redskins in their loss to the Eagles

Santana Moss says the Redskins deactivating Adrian Peterson was ‘ludicrous’