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Part 11

On a fast track

By Kevin Van Valkenburg

Sun reporter

December 16, 2007

COLLEGE PARK

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The question made Darrius Heyward-Bey chuckle. And roll his eyes.

To the Maryland sophomore wide receiver, it sounded, when voiced out loud, almost absurd.

Darrius, are you thinking at all about declaring early for the NFL draft?

It's the kind of question that begins in some dark corner of the Internet, usually on a fan message board, with someone who swears he has a source with inside information. It has happened to Heyward-Bey countless times this year.

He's gone, the message usually starts. A friend of a friend knows a trainer inside the program, and he told him there is no way DHB is coming back! The gossip trickles upward until, eventually, people begin to wonder: Just how much truth is there behind the rumor? Would Heyward-Bey, Maryland's best wide receiver in several years, really leave school after playing just two seasons?

"Man, I'm not even thinking about that," Heyward-Bey said recently, dismissing a reporter's question with a quizzical shake of his head. "I haven't even thought about what I'm doing tomorrow yet, to be honest."

If you're unfamiliar with just how far Heyward-Bey has come the past three years at Maryland, it would almost seem like a reasonable query. He does, after all, possess the perfect blend of size (6 feet 2) and speed (4.23 seconds in the 40-yard dash) that makes NFL general managers salivate. After just two seasons, during which he caught 93 passes despite playing with three different quarterbacks, he has already shown flashes of the kind of playmaking that usually gives a player a shot at suiting up on Sundays.

But Heyward-Bey has been frustratingly inconsistent, too, and he knows it. He had just one catch in a loss to Wake Forest and no catches in a loss to Clemson. He's harder on himself than just about anyone on the team.

"It's been a little disappointing," Heyward-Bey said. "I want to end on a good note [at the Emerald Bowl] against Oregon State."

He sometimes still has a difficult time believing, deep down, he's a football player. He grew up as a basketball lover and track star, and only really joined the football team in high school to make friends. He earned a scholarship based solely on his incredible speed, he says.

"Usually, I was just out there running for my life," Heyward-Bey said. "If I scored a touchdown, it was always out of fear of being tackled."

He showed up at Maryland with a label on his back, one tagged each year to a handful of players at every program across the country. The Project.

It's a label given almost always to an exceptional athlete who, for a variety of reasons, isn't a natural football player. They have the tools, the talent, but lack the natural instincts. They come to college cautious and uncertain, hoping to be molded, like clay, into a finished product. Some shine while others crash and burn. For every athlete like former college basketball player Antonio Gates - who never played a down of college football but became an All-Pro tight end in the NFL after the San Diego Chargers took a chance on him based on his sheer athleticism - there are hundreds who can't harness their potential.

"Darrius is the kind of guy who you saw him on tape and you just went: 'Whoa. Who is that guy?'" Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen said. "You have to take a chance on guys like that. We were lucky to get him."

And so when people want to know what he thinks about a potential career in the NFL, Heyward-Bey tries to keep in mind that it was less than two years ago, after his redshirt freshman season, that the Maryland coaching staff called him into the football offices and told him flat-out: You might want to consider doing something else.

"I didn't play very well in spring ball after my first year here," Heyward-Bey said. "They told me if I didn't start showing them something, I might want to focus on track."

Said Maryland wide receiver Isaiah Williams, now a good friend of Heyward-Bey's: "My initial feeling, and I've never told anyone this, was that he was just a track guy. But, obviously, he proved to people he was a lot more than that."

Heyward-Bey, who had never played organized football before his freshman year at McDonogh, used the meeting as motivation. In high school, he had been able to get by on raw speed. In college, it was a different story.

"We knew he was fast - that he had legit Olympic qualifying times," Maryland wide receivers coach Bryan Bossard said. "But he couldn't stop. That's 90 percent of our game, being able to transition with speed and not tip off your transitions."

What Heyward-Bey had to work on, and what he's still working on to this day, was making every release, and the first 5 yards of every route, look the same. Then, he had to learn to focus on running his routes at the proper depth, had to control his body at top speed. And he had to catch the ball again and again until his hands hurt. It was a repetitive and sometimes mind-numbing process. But it was essential to what came next.

Heyward-Bey went from almost being asked to leave to being one of the most exciting players in the Atlantic Coast Conference as a freshman. He was the Terps' leading receiver with 45 catches, and his 694 receiving yards were eighth on the Terps' single-season list. In a nationally televised game against Miami, Heyward-Bey caught a deep pass and streaked down the sideline for a school-record 96-yard touchdown. In the same game, he also had a 65-yard touchdown catch. Maryland won, 14-13, and almost out of nowhere, Maryland had found an elite playmaker.

"That whole week, my hamstring hurt," Heyward-Bey said. "But I knew I had to be ready to go. Coach called my number. I think it gave the nation a chance to see Maryland has some speed, too. I love the feeling of [going deep]. It's almost completely quiet, and suddenly, it's just you and the ball."

This season has been inconsistent, in part because Maryland has struggled to overcome various injuries. But Heyward-Bey (48 catches, 687 yards) has managed to fight through a midseason slump thanks to Bossard and the counsel of a close friend who has also turned some heads this year with improved play: Ravens wide receiver Devard Darling.

The two met when Heyward-Bey was in high school because Darling's wife was McDonogh's track coach and have been close ever since. When Darling caught a 53-yard pass against the New England Patriots on Monday Night Football two weeks ago, he pointed to where Heyward-Bey was sitting in the stands.

"He's like a brother to me," Heyward-Bey said. "He keeps me going. I talk to him about everything, whether it's about life or about football. He's helped me cope with a lot of things, whether it's how to beat a certain coverage, or how to deal with being a big name on campus. I loved watching him play, because my heart starts racing. I feel like I'm out there with him."

Still, despite what you might have heard, Heyward-Bey says he's in no rush to join Darling in the NFL. He knows there is still plenty of molding and shaping to be done.

"Hopefully, one day I'll be living the dream out there with him," Heyward-Bey said. "When that time comes - two years from now - I'll call him."

kevin.vanvalkenburg @baltsun.com