CHARLOTTESVILLE – For Virginia freshman Dominique Terrell, the thrill of his most significant accomplishment yet as a collegiate wide receiver barely lasted long enough for him to run 27 yards into the end zone.
He had scored a touchdown in overtime to help the Cavaliers seal a win over Idaho on Oct. 1, and yet his mind quickly was consumed – as it often has been this season – with previous plays that had gone awry.
“After I caught it I was excited, but then I thought to myself, ‘Man, you’ve messed up all game,’ ” Terrell said. “So I really didn’t even celebrate after the touchdown. I still was upset about the punt returns.”
Terrell served as Virginia’s primary punt returner for the first five games of the season, but the Cavaliers’ coaches have viewed his production thus far as insufficient and his on-field decision-making as questionable. They see the speed, athleticism and agility that Terrell possesses and believe a dynamic return specialist is in there somewhere.
But for now, at least, that potent skill combination remains hidden underneath a layer of confusion and self-doubt.
“I’m fearless, really,” said Terrell, who was a first-team All-Met at kick returner at Osbourn High in 2010. “It’s just thinking of making a mistake. I try to play mistake-free and give our offense a chance to move the ball. But me not catching [punts] is obviously putting us in bad situations sometimes.”
On Monday, Coach Mike London said his team spent a portion of its recently completed bye week addressing a lackluster punt return unit. Virginia is averaging 6.1 yards per punt return, which ranks No. 82 in the nation. Terrell has returned seven punts for an average gain of 4.4 yards.
London said senior cornerback Chase Minnifield – the team’s primary punt returner last season – will spend more time in that role in the near future, though London noted Terrell will continue to return punts, as well. London said Virginia (3-2) also may send back two punt returners on a given kick more often.
It is Terrell’s decisions in terms of when to return punts, when to let them bounce and be downed by opposing players and when to call for fair catches, London said, that need most improvement.
During Virginia’s season-opening 40-3 win over William & Mary, Terrell called for one fair catch and allowed three punts to be downed. He began working with graduate assistant Marques Hagans during practice the following week, and Hagans came up with a mantra for Terrell to adopt: “Catch everything.”
That, Terrell noted, is easier said than done when it comes time to make a decision, especially when the opposing punt unit includes starting linebackers and safeties who always seem to be barreling toward him at high speeds.
“When you watch film and you see one person on the scouting report that gets in there every time, you always have to look out for him,” Terrell said. “Seeing that, and then feeling it back there catching the punt is difficult.”
Late in the third quarter against Idaho, Terrell let a 76-yard punt sail over his head and bounce off the ground toward the Virginia end zone. He said game film revealed he had plenty of time to catch it, but in the moment he hadn’t wanted to run backward, risk misjudging the ball’s flight and have it bounce off him. He chased after the ball as it bounced and briefly contemplated trying to pick it up.
The ball eventually was downed at the Virginia 4-yard line. Minnifield returned Idaho’s punts the rest of the game.
Terrell said his misplays on punt returns have affected his performance at wide receiver, as well. Despite being afforded ample playing time on offense, Terrell has recorded four receptions for 26 yards. Only two of his catches gained positive yardage.
“When I was missing those punts, I was just thinking of that while I was playing receiver, so I really wasn’t focused on receiver,” Terrell said. “I’ve just got to learn to overcome things like that. When I mess up at one thing, make sure I don’t mess up in the other things.”