Maquel Haywood started returning kickoffs for the Navy football team five games into the season and quickly showed he was a natural for the job. The speedy slotback broke loose for a 38-yard return during his college debut against SMU and that proved the first of many.
Haywood had a 48-yard return against Cincinnati and a 37-yarder against Tulsa, and it was obvious to any observer it was only a matter of time before he took one to the house.
That happened last Saturday when Haywood electrified the crowd at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium with a 98-yard kickoff return for touchdown against East Carolina. The 5-foot-8, 170-pound plebe fielded the ball along the left sideline and ran diagonally toward the right to get behind the wedge.
Running at top speed, Haywood made a sharp cut left at just the right moment and accelerated through a huge hole. He raced past the kicker then turned on the afterburners and blazed into the end zone.
“A seam opened up right where it should, and I hit it,” Haywood said. “It was me and the kicker one-on-one and I was able to slip by him and use my speed to get away from the defenders coming up from behind.”
It was Navy’s first kickoff return for touchdown since Gee Gee Greene brought one back 95 yards against Arizona State in the 2012 Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. It also tied for the longest kickoff return in program history, matching the 98-yarder Reggie Campbell broke against Army in 2007.
Assistant Danny O’Rourke is in charge of the kickoff return unit and had a huge assist in Haywood’s touchdown run. O’Rourke recognized that East Carolina was kicking to off returner Amin Hassan and told the two plebes to switch places at the last second.
“It was a great job of Coach O’Rourke making a game-time adjustment,” coach Ken Niumatalolo said.
Haywood was a kickoff returner at Wake Forest High in the North Carolina town of the same name. He was also the starting tailback for back-to-back state championship teams, rushing for 2,047 yards in those two seasons.
East Carolina offered Haywood a scholarship then pulled it after he suffered a torn ACL as a senior. That made Saturday’s return even more special as it showed the opposing coaching staff that might have been a mistake.
“That did give me a little chip on my shoulder going into the game. It felt good to get that [touchdown] against that team because they basically told me I wasn’t good enough,” said Haywood, adding he will always appreciate the loyalty Navy showed.
Haywood had plenty of time to fully recover from the knee surgery while spending a year at the Naval Academy Prep School. He caught the attention of the coaching staff during preseason testing with an impressive 40-inch vertical leap.
“When you see that you’re like ‘Wow, this guy is special.’ Either you have explosiveness or you don’t,” Niumatalolo said. “The kid has a bright, bright future.”
O’Rourke pointed out that speed alone does not make a successful kickoff returner. He has seen many big-time track and field sprinters that could never figure out how to get into the open field.
“You need to be fearless and have great instincts, which Maquell does,” O’Rourke said. “He’s also got great balance, great vision, great hips and great speed.”
Haywood is averaging 36.1 yards per kickoff return, which is currently a school record. Bob Jenkins averaged 32.8 yards in 1944, while Greene averaged 31.2 yards in 2012.
Haywood gives all the credit to the 10 blockers who must make sure every member of the coverage unit is accounted for. Every blocker has a specific assignment and the returner is told to beat the kicker — either by breaking a tackle or making a move.
“First and foremost, it takes being a great teammate to be a good returner because you have to trust your blockers,” Haywood said. “Being fearless is a huge part of it because you have guys flying down a 100 mph, so you have to be able to hit it and trust that the other 10 guys are going to do their job and set you up.”
“I think my job is the easiest on the field; I just make one cut and go.”
Haywood and Hassan are two of nine freshmen on the Navy kickoff return unit. Blockers Mbiti Williams, Jordan Sanders, Kyle Jacob, Jianni Woodson-Brooks, Justin Reed and Colin Ramos are also plebes.
Turner Stepp was part of the unit before getting injured and was replaced by fellow freshman Marcus Bleazard. Sophomores Camari Williams and Chaisen Buckner are the other members of the kickoff return team.
“There cannot be another kickoff return unit in the country with nine freshmen starters,” O’Rourke said. “They’re all really good and have done an outstanding job. They’re young and hungry and take a lot of pride in the job.”
Meanwhile, Haywood and Hassan are among a group of talented plebes at the slotback position. Niumatalolo said the coaching staff is also very high on Campbell Speights, Cameron Smith and Kroy Meyers.
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Line: Navy by 12 ½