Senior guard Jaimie Thomas witnessed plenty in nearly five years with the Maryland football program. So when he stepped into the huddle in the middle of the fourth quarter Saturday and declared the next play was “for our season,” the force of his words was left hanging for a while.
It was chilly, with lingering dampness from an earlier drenching. And from that on-field congregation emerged receiver Ronnie Tyler, who knew the Terrapins needed 10 yards to prolong a potentially game-winning drive.
“I’m shaking, I’m a freshman,” Tyler said. “I’m like, ‘OK, I’ve got to run this play.’”
It was third down, of course: Tyler’s specialty. And just as sure as he was open, quarterback Chris Turner zipped a pass to a place only Tyler could reach it. North Carolina cornerback Kendric Burney arrived about the same time.
The ball emerged safely tucked in Tyler’s hands for an 18-yard catch. Burney, after delivering a bruising hit, raised his arms in incredulity. And Maryland was into North Carolina territory on its way to a clinching field goal.
“I thought he was going to break every bone in his body coming down,” Turner said.
Not the 5-foot-10 Tyler, who together with senior Danny Oquendo provide the No. 22 Terrapins (7-3, 4-2 ACC) with two of their most reliable targets since coach Ralph Friedgen arrived in 2001.
Tyler, who has delivered 10 of his 15 receptions on third down, is sort of an Oquendo apprentice. The pair share similar abilities, and it’s clear Tyler will take over as the primary slot receiver when Oquendo graduates after this season.
While Oquendo might not possess the pizazz of Darrius Heyward-Bey, he is as close to an automatic option as exists in the Terps’ offense. He has eight receptions on third down - and each earned the Terps a first down.
“It’s more doing my job, just knowing how much we need to get for first downs,” Oquendo said. “If it’s third-and-8, I’ll make sure I run my route at eight yards so that when I catch the ball, the worst-case scenario is that we have a first down.”
Oquendo turns the tough reception into routine, so much so his steadiness is almost assumed at this point. But opponents are well aware of his reputation, and safeties and linebackers are often draped over Oquendo almost immediately after he secures a pass.
Perhaps the same will happen for Tyler, whose presence has alleviated the attention Oquendo usually receives underneath. However, the freshman’s penchant for acrobatic plays might not help him maintain a low profile.
“He’s made crazy catches, but he’s capable of doing that,” Heyward-Bey said. “He’s really a mini-Danny. Danny’s a little bit more of a pure receiver, and Ronnie’s got a little more work to do. But he’s going to be one of those guys you talk about in the future.”
Tyler might be even more crucial on third downs with both Oquendo and tight end Dan Gronkowski leaving after this season. It can only help the Terps that Tyler spent the last two seasons working with Oquendo.
“If I can watch him and just be the receiver he is by around my senior year, I feel like I’ll have a pretty good career,” Tyler said.
Of course, Maryland has the services of both players for Saturday’s crucial meeting with Florida State (7-3, 4-3), a game that could again place the Terps’ season on the line.
And chances are, either Oquendo or Tyler will be the one called upon to keep things going.
“If it’s third-and-real long, all right, we’ll take our loss and get field position and move on,” Turner said. “But if it’s third-and-10 or third-and-11, we have a pretty good chance of converting that because we have guys like Danny and Ronnie who understand where they are on the field and understand how to get open.”