Bill Hass on the ACC: Heyward-Bey Leaves `Track Guy' Label Behind to Star for Terps
Sept. 25, 2008
By Bill Hass
GREENSBORO, N.C. – Sometimes he still misses track, but Darrius Heyward-Bey believes he has made the transition to football player.
A fourth-year junior at Maryland, Heyward-Bey has become more than a wide receiver whose contribution was blowing past defenders and catching the long ball.
“I think I’ve come a long way (in techniques) but I’m not there yet,” he said before a practice as the Terps prepared for a game against Clemson on Saturday. “Each day I try to improve my game on techniques and fundamentals. The second you start thinking that you’ve got them down, that’s when the flaws start coming back. Each day I practice I try to work on something new.”
It’s no secret that Heyward-Bey has blazing speed. He was once timed at 4.23 seconds in the 40-yard dash and he was a high school champion in the 100- and 200-meter events and 60-meter indoor dash at McDonogh School near Baltimore. That speed first drew the attention of football scouts.
“The ability to run was the first thing that excited us,” said Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen, “and then we got some tape on him and saw how explosive he was.”
The explosiveness came from virtually perfect running form. Heyward-Bey was good enough to receive track scholarship offers from LSU, Florida and Texas Tech. But he also played football in a four-receiver spread offense at McDonogh and attracted attention from a slew of schools, including Maryland. He decided to take the offer from the Terps, whose campus is just a few minutes from his hometown of Silver Spring, Md.
“I just wanted to challenge myself,” he said of his decision. “All through high school I kept hearing I was a ‘track guy’ and I can’t play football at this level. I just wanted to prove not only other people wrong, but prove to myself that if you put hard work into it, anything is possible.”
And it has taken hard work. The first thing Heyward-Bey did at Maryland was take a red-shirt season, which he put to good use.
“When I got here I just had to understand the game a lot more,” he explained. “I didn’t play football that much in high school. My red-shirt season, I learned about the game, knowing what everybody else is doing on the field, what the quarterback is calling, what the (offensive) line protection is, what the running backs are thinking.
“That has made me a better football player because I had the time to really know the game of football. I think my knowledge of the game is pretty good right now. Playing experience has helped, and just watching a lot of film. That’s something I’ve learned to do, watch a lot of film to try to give myself that advantage. I try to see the holes in defenses, try to get an edge on certain individuals. But at the end of the day, football is football. You’re going to have to go out there and try to make plays.”
He decided to give up track and fully commit to football. Of course, there are times when he can’t help but think about his track career. He was impressed with the performance of Jamaica’s Usain Bolt in winning the 100 and 200 at the Beijing Olympics.
“I’m more impressed with his 200 run than his 100 run,” Heyward-Bey said. “I saw Michael Johnson’s 200 run in the 1996 Olympics and I just really thought that was impossible to beat. The 200 is something I was looking forward to and try to take on to the next level to run (in college and as a pro).
“Just running track in general was great. You kind of have flashbacks and you kind of wonder, ‘If I hadn’t stuck with football what would have happened?’ But it is what it is and I’m happy with my decision.”
The conversion from being a track athlete to a football player isn’t as simple as it sounds. What’s good form in a sprint doesn’t fit as well for a wide receiver, where your weight needs to be more over your feet. That makes it easier to stop quickly and go into a break.
“When I got here, running by people was probably the easiest thing to do,” Heyward-Bey said. “Being able to run full speed, stop on a dime, accelerate out of your break, all those things you’ve got to do as a receiver, that’s tough.”
In his first two seasons, Heyward-Bey caught 96 passes and scored nine touchdowns (one on a run), including a 96-yard catch-and-run against Miami that is the longest play from scrimmage in Maryland history. He averaged 15.4 yards per catch.
While he certainly made an impact, his improvement seemed to level off between his first and second seasons. That’s where this summer’s hard work paid off.
“Darrius has always been able to run by people,” Friedgen said. “That has been something that is God-given. The thing I’ve been very impressed with is how he has learned to run routes and catch the ball, the finer things. I think he’s improved a lot this year over last year and I think he still has a lot of growth to go yet. His potential is unlimited.”
Clemson held Heyward-Bey without a catch in its meeting at Maryland last year. Although coach Tommy Bowden said he is equally worried about Maryland’s running game, he’s well aware of the receiver’s potential.
“From what I hear from pro scouts, he’s the receiver they talk about in this conference,” Bowden said. “He’s a lot more polished (than last year). You can see just the way he maneuvers against press man coverage, how he gets off contact, his acceleration in and out of cuts, body lean, body mannerisms.”
This season Heyward-Bey has 12 catches for 250 yards and three touchdowns and has added five rushes for 110 yards and one TD. He has scored once in each of the Terps’ first four games and is averaging 20.8 yards per catch and 22.1 yards per rush.
“Anything to put my team in position to score I’m willing to do,” he said. “Out of the backfield, reverses, screen passes, whatever I have to do to help my team win.”
He has even adjusted to blocking, which he rarely needed to do in high school. At Maryland it’s required because of a strong running game. Heyward-Bey said he’s “pretty good” and getting better.
“We have a great running back in Da’Rel Scott and I love blocking for him,” he said. “It’s something new and different from track. Track is more of a mental, you-against-the clock thing. Going out there and blocking, getting hit, catching the ball with somebody hitting you, that’s what the game is about. It’s fun.”
Heyward-Bey is majoring in American studies with an emphasis on the media. Ultimately, he would love to direct films, something he plays around with as a hobby in his down time. In high school he put together a documentary on Martin Luther King that drew praise.
The NFL is also on the horizon, and after this season he may need to make a decision on whether to enter the 2009 draft or return for his senior season.
“That’s a goal of mine one day, but I don’t know when that will be,” he said. “I still have a lot of stuff to learn about the game. Also, this is a big year for this football team, so that’s where my concentration is.
“I think this team can be pretty good. We have confidence that we’re capable of doing great things at Maryland this year and next year.”
And Heyward-Bey intends to contribute – not as a track guy, but as an ever-improving football player.
Bill Hass is a long-time observer of ACC sports. His career at the Greensboro News & Record spanned 36 years, from 1969 until his retirement in March, 2006. He is now writing "Bill Hass on the ACC" for theACC.com. His weekly columns will keep fans plugged in to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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