Maquel Haywood has been one of the few bright spots for the Navy offense through two games. The speedy slotback has made positive plays almost every time he has touched the ball and flashed the breakaway ability Navy fans first saw last season.
Haywood has become the go-to guy whenever the Midshipmen pitch the ball, ranking fifth on the team with 14 carries. Quarterback Tai Lavatai (36 carries) along with fullbacks Daba Fofana (24), Logan Point (22) and Anton Hall (17) are the only skill position players with more.
Haywood leads Navy with 5.9 yards per carry, an average bolstered by several long runs. He broke loose for a gain of 17 yards against Memphis and has four other runs of 10 yards or more.
The 5-foot-8, 189-pound sophomore has been even more productive as a pass catcher, amassing 77 yards on catches.
Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo recently acknowledged the need to increase Haywood’s touches.
“Maquel is a proven playmaker, so yes we want to get the ball in his hands as much as possible,” he said.
Haywood burst on the scene last season when he took over as the team’s primary kickoff returner midway through the season. He brought a kick back 38 yards against SMU, a debut that solidified the starting role.
However, Haywood did not break into the slotback rotation until late in the season and wound up with just nine carries. With the graduation of starters Chance Warren and Carlinos Acie, along with backup Tyger Goslin, there was wide-open competition at the position and Haywood quickly rose to the top of the depth chart.
Haywood said he learned a lot from watching tape of those departed seniors and seeing in-person how they went about their business in practice.
“I took a lot of mental reps last season even though I wasn’t in there physically,” he said.
Haywood played for a perennially powerful Wake Forest High program, which captured consecutive North Carolina state championships in 2018 and 2019. East Carolina offered Haywood a scholarship after he rushed for 1,222 yards as a junior on the Cougars’ 2019 title team.
However, the Pirates withdrew the offer after Haywood suffered a torn ACL seven games into his senior season. It was the second such injury for the Raleigh native, who missed his entire freshman season due to a torn ACL.
“They ultimately threw the towel in on me. They said we don’t want you,” Haywood said of the East Carolina coaching staff.
Navy never wavered in recruiting Haywood, who was able to recover from his second knee surgery while spending the 2020-21 academic year at the Naval Academy Prep School.
“To me, that was God closing one door to open up the door I needed to walk through,” Haywood said. “I’m where I need to be. I’m glad it panned out that way, but I definitely do have a chip on my shoulder.”
That was why Haywood was so excited after returning a kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown during last season’s heartbreaking 38-35 loss to ECU. It tied for the second-longest kickoff return in Navy history.
Haywood closed the season with a kickoff return average of 31 yards, third-best single-season mark in Navy history.
Navy slotbacks coach Joe DuPaix was confident Haywood could be just as dangerous taking pitch-outs as he was catching kickoffs, and that has certainly proven true so far.
“Athletically, Maquel has all the tools. He can run, he can catch, he can make plays,” DuPaix said. “I think the biggest thing in Maquel’s development is confidence, just understanding that he’s a great athlete and can do it at this level against the competition we play against.”
Haywood is one of the fastest members of the team and also one of the most explosive, evidenced by his impressive times in 10- and 20-yard dash testing.
“Maquel definitely has great burst and top-end speed,” DuPaix said.
While his electric acceleration after catching a pitch or the sprinter’s speed to get behind the pass defense are most noticeable, DuPaix is most pleased that Haywood has developed into an all-around slotback.
“I love coaching him and it’s a privilege to see him every day because he has a great attitude,” DuPaix said. “Mentally, Maquel has picked up a ton of knowledge and wisdom. He’s unselfish and willing to do whatever is necessary for the team.”
East Carolina’s coaching staff apparently felt the second knee injury would comprise Haywood’s speed and explosiveness. In the player’s opinion, just the opposite was true.
“When you go through injuries like that, when you’re recovering and rehabbing they work all the fiber muscles you haven’t necessarily worked as an athlete,” he said. “I definitely feel that twitch and that speed comes back more than it did originally.”
Haywood is looking forward to playing at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in Greenville, which is located just over an hour from his home.
“It’s going to be very special. I love North Carolina and I’m excited to go back,” he said. “ECU always brings out a good crowd so I’m excited to go there and play Saturday night.”
Haywood’s dream scenario would be stunning the Pirates a second time with a kickoff return for a touchdown.
“That would be amazing. I feel like we have a great scheme for the kickoff return team. As long as we get it blocked right, I feel like another one could go to the house,” he said.