When it comes to elite receivers, the best of the best at the collegiate and NFL levels all have one common trait - every one of them has hands like Velcro.
Some run better routes than others, some are quicker getting of the line or better at stretching the field. Others just have a feel for finding soft spots in the defense and a few even make their name for the little things they do away from the ball. But all of the greats can catch the ball with amazing consistency. If the football's within their reach, even if a defender's draped on top of them, the elite receivers are going to make the catch more often than not.
Some guys just have that knack. Hard work can improve a receiver's consistency, but on some level, great receivers are just born to catch the ball.
For Texas fans, the past two seasons have showcased two of the best sets of hands to ever come through the Longhorn program. Neither Jordan Shipley nor Quan Cosby is going to set the mold for the perfect receiver in terms of size or raw athletic ability, but both players had an incredible ability for snagging anything and everything that was thrown their way. Along with quarterback Colt McCoy, Shipley and Cosby were the Horns' most consistent weapons on offenses that helped lead Texas to a 25-2 record over the last two seasons.
Looking down the road, the Longhorn coaches went out in the 2010 class and inked five players that are expected to line up at receiver, and each prospect brings with him a deep and varied skill set. Among the impressive haul of commitments is one player that's regarded as having some of the best hands that Texas has brought into the program in the last decade.
DeSoto pass catcher Darius Terrell, a player that's been described behind the scenes as being similar to former Longhorn receiver Limas Sweed, only with better ball skills, is set to report to Texas in early June, and the talented pass catcher is hard at work fine-tuning his talents. Already blessed with an ability to pluck the ball out of the sky with ease, Terrell's nowhere near satisfied. Once the DeSoto hoops season ended, Terrell began football off-season workouts, including a variety of conditioning drills and going out after school, four days a week, to catch at least 200 balls a day.
"After I lift in the morning, I run the bleachers after school, do some sprints, then work on ball skills," Terrell said. "Our receivers coach throws me passes. I keep my hands behind back, wait until the ball is right in front of my face and then snag it.
"After school, after running, I'm tired and body's hurting. But if I don't catch ball, he's going to break my nose. You have to focus all the time. In the fourth quarter, when there's three minutes left. if you don't catch the ball, you're not going to win."
How much does Terrell value the role of his hands? He's running routes with weighted gloves in an effort to improve his balance and footwork.
"When you're running routes, it's all about your hands. Your hands control your feet," Terrell said. "It really works."
A player that DeSoto head coach Claude Mathis said has the best ball skills of any player he's seen at the high school level, Terrell is hoping his high school success and hard work in the off-season will carry over once he arrives on the Forty Acres.
UNRELENTING WORK ETHIC AND COMPETITIVE FIRE
After catching just 15 passes as a sophomore, Terrell knew he need to make improvements in his game if he was going to get to achieve his goal of playing football past the high school level. He put in countless hours of extra work in the off-season and responded with a junior campaign in which he doubled his production, catching 34 passes for 577 yards and 6 touchdowns. Those efforts, along with some strong work at a Texas summer camp, helped earned Terrell a Longhorn scholarship. He committed almost immediately. While some players may hit easy street after locking down their college destination, the decision to wear burnt orange and white only added fuel to Terrell's fire.
"After that, the stress is gone, some people don't want to work as hard. I made up mind to get better, get stronger, get faster," Terrell said."
As a senior, Terrell was nearly uncoverable, earning Parade All-American honors after catching 77 passes for 1,139 yards and 12 touchdowns.
"Darius has improved so much from first my year here to my second year just because of his work ethic," Mathis said. "He's got good hands and can adjust to the football as well anyone I've seen at the high school level."
Along with his natural talents and his hard work, Terrell's never been one to back down from a challenge. At practice, he and fellow UT signee Adrian White would make it a point to match up in drills, and when DeSoto did find itself in a rare struggle in 2009, it was Terrell that wanted to step up and take command.
"He's so competitive, if things weren't going well in a ball game, he would want the ball right then. And he wants the football when it's in the air. He doesn't think anyone can guard him one on one, and that's true," Mathis said. "Everyone had to double team him this year. His competitive nature takes over when someone challenges him or plays him man to man. That doesn't happen. If you play him man to man, Darius is going to eat you up."
Mathis estimates that Terrell would have easily surpassed the 1,500-yard mark as a receiver if teams didn't go out of their way to take him out of the offense, but it's Terrell's team-first mentality that the coach is most proud of.
"His work ethic has stood out but more than anything, it's the way he was a team player. If anybody on our team made a big play, made a big catch, Darius would run over and be first one to celebrate with them," Mathis said.
ART OF DECEPTION
One of the few knocks that critics placed on Terrell was what they described as a lack of breakaway speed. Terrell attended a couple camps over the summer in which his electronically timed 40-yard dash times weren't up to expectations (the same could be said for just about every kid in attendance), and the label of not having enough speed stuck. Terrell responded by working hard last summer to improve his quickness and top-end speed, and the on-field results put any concerns to rest.
Terrell records in 4.55 range in hand-timed 40-yard dashes, and his ability to carry his pads and tap into a quicker game speed are not lost on his coaches, teammates or opponents.
"There's football speed and then there's 40 speed and track speed. Darius Terrell has speed on the football field," Mathis said. "You get him on a football field, he can go with anybody else.
"And he makes plays, and that's what you can't overlook. People put too much emphasis on these kids and get up in their 40 thinking they should be running 4.3s. Some kids are just naturally good and can make plays without running a 4.3."
What he may lack in true breakaway speed - he's never going to be confused with a quick-twitch athlete like D.J. Monroe - Terrell makes up for with his size, strength, ability to use his body and a natural feel for the game. DeSoto uses drills modeled after NFL and college teams teaching its receivers the finer points of the receiver position, from footwork to body control to catching the ball at its highest point, and Mathis said Terrell has always nailed the drills with relative ease. It's that combination of physical and mental strengths, as well as his ability to split wide, play in the slot or even line up at tight end, that made Terrell an attractive option for Texas and so many other programs that extended scholarship offers.
HIS ROLE AT TEXAS?
Currently tipping the scales at 220 pounds (up from about 212 at this time last year) and standing a fraction of an inch under 6-3, Terrell continues to talk to the Texas coaches about playing both wide receiver and tight end.
When he first entered the recruiting process, the possibility of lining up anywhere but at a pure receiver had never crossed his mind. During his junior day visit last February, when he picked up his UT offer, Mack Brown first mentioned the idea of playing tight end and it took some time for Terrell to warm up to the idea. He had planned on committing the second the offer was made, but the tight end talk caused him to take 24 hours to discuss the offer with his parents before accepting.
"When I was talking to coach Brown, when he said tight end, I looked at him like he was crazy," Terrell said. "But he was right. They said when guys like David Thomas, Bo Scaife and Jermichael Finley played, they all played in the 230-235 range. I'm not far from it.
"Mack Brown said he had the same conversation with Russell Shepard and (Shepard) had the same reaction I did. I went home, talked to my dad about it and then I was ready to go. I appreciate the honesty. That was another reason I took the offer."
In typical fashion, Terrell is working hard to cover all his bases and he's picked up tapes from Texas on both the wide receiver and tight end positions. He's added weight but feels stronger and faster, and most importantly, Terrell has fully bought into the idea of playing tight end if that's what the coaches feel is best.
"Honestly, I feel like I'm the best wide receiver in this class, but if tight end is where I can play, that's where I'll play," Terrell said. "The last three tight ends Texas has had, they've put in the league. If Blaine Irby didn't get hurt, he'd be going to the league too."
In a somewhat ironic twist, Terrell will be looking to fill a role in the Longhorn offense that was once penciled in for D.J. Grant, who starred for Mathis at Austin LBJ before Mathis took the DeSoto job two years ago. Grant, still on the mend from a serious knee injury suffered in August, is another big-body receiver who coaches were hoping could make the move from receiver to a combo tight/flex end, step in and add some pass-catching punch to the Texas tight end spot.
"When I first met Darius, I asked him if he knew who I was and he said he did. He said, 'Coach I'm going to be better than (Grant) was,'" said Mathis.
Terrell's aim, like most freshmen, is to get on the field early. In order to accomplish that goal, he'll need to show the coaches he's more than just a talented receiver. Terrell plans to be up for the challenge.
"That's one of my best things, my blocking, I take pride in blocking," Terrell said. "If you're blocking corner, a linebacker, a defensive end or down there with offensive linemen - when I'm on football field, I'm a different person. It's an aggression. I'm not afraid of anyone. I don't have any problem blocking."
Wherever he winds up, Terrell plans to put in maximum effort and he's still thrilled at his decision to play for Texas. Schools like Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas Tech, Tennessee and Kansas also extended scholarship offers over the course of the recruiting process, but Terrell never once wavered once he gave the Texas coaches a verbal pledge.
"I'm very grateful. I thank God for getting a scholarship form the Longhorns. It's a burden off my parents," Terrell said. "I'm getting the opportunity to continue a dream, play where I wanted to play. I see the opportunity that's in front of me. I fully recognize it and I'm going to seize it. I want to be remembered as either the best wide receiver or best tight end that's ever played at Texas. I'm not going to let this opportunity pass me by."