- The Washington Times - Friday, August 29, 2008

Just a day after last spring’s NFL Draft, the mock selections for the following year started their usual trickle for the next group of possible future pro football players.

One of the few wide receivers listed on nearly all of them was Maryland’s Darrius Heyward-Bey, an indication of how valuable analysts believe the junior with speed to spare, a winning smile and a vital place in the Terrapins‘ program could be in the future.

Right now, only the present matters.

It’s about building on back-to-back bowl appearances, perhaps even pushing Maryland into contention for its first ACC title since 2001. It’s about retreating to a dark meeting room to watch film for a half-hour after practice each day.

There are tweaks to be made, lessons to both learn and impart and an arguably overlooked team to propel forward after a series of injuries tore the Terps’ dreams asunder last year, relegating the program to a 6-7 finish and an Emerald Bowl loss.

The next level - it’s off in the distance.

“I don’t look at any of those things, not one little bit,” Heyward-Bey said. “Never been tempted to really, because you start looking at those things, you start thinking you’re better than you really are. I know I have a lot of stuff to work on. I see that every day watching film. I just like to stay grounded.”

So he tries, faring as well as can be expected in such an endeavor although he’s probably Maryland’s most recognizable player. He might also be the Terps player of whom the most is anticipated as he begins his third season.

And the thing is Heyward-Bey might just deliver such a payoff this fall.

“He has a tremendous work ethic,” coach Ralph Friedgen said. “That’s the thing I like about him. He’s very coachable. He really wants you to coach him.”

Young elder statesman

Two years ago, Heyward-Bey was a question mark. He faced scrutiny as a well-regarded recruit in 2005 and took one snap before redshirting. Then came a freshman season that featured a handful of memorable plays on a team devoid of experienced wideouts.

Last year, Heyward-Bey increased his catches and yardage even if the perception was there weren’t as many big plays. But he improved as the year progressed, and so did a receiver corps Heyward-Bey watched mature the last two seasons.

And suddenly, he’s a veteran, even if the steady gaze and infectious laugh remain the same as before.

“I’m old now,” Heyward-Bey joked.

Not to mention better.

He’s evolved from more than just a track guy, a man who once harbored dreams of competing in the Olympics as a sprinter who happened to wear shoulder pads and a helmet. The priority now is becoming a complete receiver, and Heyward-Bey won’t tolerate lesser ambitions.

“He’s running a lot better routes, he’s catching the ball better and he’s making more plays - if you can say he’s making more plays,” wide receivers coach Lee Hull said. “Everybody knows he can run down deep and go catch the ball. He’s catching it in traffic. He’s catching short ones. He’s running more precise routes. He’s blocking better.”

Perhaps the greatest lingering concern is the one flaw Friedgen often returns to when describing Heyward-Bey. At times, he’s too fast for his own good.

When he runs a route and cuts, it takes time to halt his long stride before hurtling in a different direction. Agile wideouts use their quickness and avoid a brief slow-down. It’s a technical aspect based as much on muscle memory as skill, and it remains an emphasis for Heyward-Bey.

“It’s tough to run that fast and stopping and coming back out that fast,” Heyward-Bey said. “You can tell your brain to do it, but your body is like, ‘What are we doing. We’re not used to this.’ It takes a lot of time and practice. Some days are better than others.”

Most are good, and the extra time in film study doesn’t hurt. One of the greatest tips Heyward-Bey received from friend and Kansas City wideout Devard Darling was the value of scouring tape to identify strengths and weaknesses.

During the spring, Heyward-Bey picked up on something sophomore Adrian Cannon did in practice and incorporated it into his game. Heyward-Bey often invites younger wideouts like Cannon into a meeting room to break down a day’s work.

“That’s just motivation,” Cannon said. “We see the predicament he’s in, and he has a chance to go to the NFL this year. We all want to be there. He’s done it here, and he knows what it takes to get there. We have to follow in his footsteps, and nine times out of 10 when he’s watching film, he’ll say, ‘Cannon, let’s go watch film.’”

Future calling?

No matter how much he tries, those references to the pros are never too far away.

A movie aficionado, Heyward-Bey prefers to spend free time with films rather than football-related treks across the Internet. But others are more preoccupied with draft forecasts and the future and occasionally will approach Heyward-Bey with word of what they read.

“It’s hard to avoid, but also I think people see the look on my face - like I’m listening, but I’m really not,” Heyward-Bey said. “I’m like, ‘OK, great, thank you.’ I don’t want to be rude because I’m not a rude person, but I don’t really let it faze me that much.”

After all, there is plenty to work on. New offensive coordinator James Franklin remembers recruiting Heyward-Bey while the receiver attended the McDonogh School and seeing a raw athlete.

Franklin left Maryland before coaching Heyward-Bey but has a different manner of measuring the junior’s progress.

“It’s dramatic,” Franklin said. “I look at it the other way. I still see how good he could be. Although I think he’s going to have a big-time year, I think he’s probably a year or two away from reaching his potential.”

He’s probably put more consideration into that question than Heyward-Bey, who likely will rank at least in the top five in program history in receptions, yards and touchdown catches by season’s end if he remains healthy.

Where such a season would take him doesn’t matter. Where it takes the Terps does - even if the NFL talk is rarely far from earshot.

“I thought about it since I was 7,” Heyward-Bey said with a laugh. “You think about it, but it has nothing to do with now. Right now it’s win the ACC championship and focus on the team’s goals. My goals have nothing to do with what’s going to happen at the next level.”



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