Big Plays, Big Career
It's obvious by the grin that forms on his face when asked about his history of big performances during his Arkansas career. He wouldn't dare walk around the Broyles Center and brag about it, but the recognition would mean a lot to him.
The 5-foot-11, 200-pound Birmingham's name won't dominate the Arkansas record books like fellow senior Matt Jones, who achieved legendary status throughout the state during his four years on campus. But the Atlanta, Texas, native has put together an impressive resume of individual accomplishments throughout his career.
He was the little-used freshman who caught the game-winning, two-point conversion during the 58-56, seven-overtime win against Ole Miss in 2001.
He was the receiver who out jumped two LSU defenders in 2002, latching onto the 31-yard touchdown pass that completed a miraculous 21-20 win.
He was the workhorse who ran for 198 yards and the game-winning touchdown on 40 carries in the 71-63, seven-overtime victory at Kentucky in 2003.
"I hope people in Arkansas will always know that I was able to make a big play when I needed to," Birmingham said. "Hopefully, after I'm gone, they'll be like, ‘DeCori was a good football player. He was consistent in everything that he did.
"‘When we needed a play, we needed a first down or anything, we gave it to DeCori and he probably got it for us.'"
Birmingham has fought through a frustrating season void of big moments, but the versatile player will get another chance to make key contributions during today's final regular-season game against No. 14 LSU in War Memorial Stadium.
He made his debut here against UNLV in 2001 and turned in his biggest moment as a Razorback two years ago, when his touchdown catch against LSU sent the Hogs to the Southeastern Conference Championship Game. And with a history of clutch performances, Arkansas coach Houston Nutt wouldn't be surprised if Birmingham accomplishes something remarkable in his final home game.
"He has been so dependable," Nutt said. "He always has been a great leader for us. I know he hasn't gotten the runs that he has expected. But he knew coming in with 10 brand new starters on offense, he knew things weren't going to be the same.
"That doesn't mean that a guy isn't competitive and he wants runs. I'm still hoping that he's going to have another big game."
Birmingham thought he'd have a season full of them after his dream of playing tailback was finally fulfilled last October. But his opportunities as a full-time running back have been few and far between.
The quick back was a home run threat after rushing for 549 yards and 3 touchdowns last season. Birmingham had a season-high 127 yards against Louisiana-Monroe and 423 yards and 3 touchdowns, but his big-play ability has been held in check by stout defenses.
De'Arrius Howard has emerged as Arkansas' feature back and Birmingham has been limited to 140 yards in the past five games.
"I don't know if it's that I'm trying to make too much happen or what, but it's just the way things work out," Birmingham said. "I know what I'm capable of doing. It's just something you have to live with. I haven't really played up to my potential. I'm not going to say it's a disappointment, but my expectations were a lot higher."
But fullback Brandon Kennedy said Birmingham continues to be an inspiration although the frustration must be "eating him up inside." Running backs coach Danny Nutt said Birmingham has encouraged Howard during his three-game hot streak.
"I can see it in his eyes," Nutt said. "He wants the ball and wants to make some long runs. He's disappointed after making those long runs last year, but he has helped us win the last couple games. He's unbelievable. He's still a No. 1 team player.
"He feels as long as we're winning, he's happy to be here."
He's not getting 20 carries a game, but Birmingham still holds an important role with the Razorbacks. One of nine seniors, Birmingham contributed 31 rushing and 14 receiving yards against Mississippi State. He also turned in a momentum-swinging, 29-yard punt return in the third quarter.
Birmingham is third on the team in rushing and fourth in receiving (16 catches, 174 yards, 1 touchdown). He also has been dependable as a punt and kick returner.
"His role on this team is not diminished at all," said receiver Steven Harris. "He might not get the (rushing) yards that he wants, but he has definitely been a playmaker for us. Last week when he broke that punt return, even though we didn't get anything out of it, it was a big momentum boost for us."
Birmingham etched his name into the record books earlier this season when he became Arkansas' career record holder for return yardage, breaking a mark Ken Hatfield held for 40 years (1,604 yards). He also broke former Hog Derek Holloway's school record for kickoff return yards (1,209).
Birmingham has 1,795 return yards in his career (1,249 kickoff, 546 punt return).
"That's something that I never really thought about until it actually happened," Birmingham said. "That record has been there for a long time. For me to break it, that's something I can take with me.
"I'm the all-time leading returner in Arkansas history. That's a big accomplishment."
Birmingham hasn't specialized in one area during his four seasons, but Harris said he'll be remembered for his versatility.
Birmingham has compiled 3,504 career yards (1,118 rushing, 591 receiving and 1,795 return) and has scored 13 touchdowns.
"He has been huge," Harris said. "He has made play after play. He's the ultimate playmaker. He has been all over the field for us, running back, returner, receiver.
"If you look back at his yards, when you add them all up at the various positions, you'd be like, ‘Wow. This guy made a mark on the program.'"
But if Birmingham's career must be defined by one play, he has no problem settling for "The Catch." It's a moment that has been revisited several times this week with Arkansas entering another do-or-die game against the Tigers.
Birmingham believes he was nothing more than a decoy on the final play and thought Jones might've been trying to throw the pass out of bounds. Then a sophomore, Birmingham thought he had a chance to make a play, jumped between LSU defenders and fell down in the corner of the end zone with the ball in his hands.
The touchdown tied the game at 20-20 with 9 seconds left and place-kicker David Carlton booted the game-winning extra point. The Razorbacks claimed the SEC Western Division Championship and Birmingham became an instant hero.
But, amazingly, he said the moment hasn't sunk in yet.
"It probably won't until I leave here and look back on it," Birmingham said. "There was always something else that kept coming up and you never really had time to sit back and think about it. But people around here still say things like, ‘I can't believe you caught that.'
"I think 10 years from now I'll look back on and say, ‘OK, I did that.'"
For now, Birmingham is thinking about his final game against the Tigers. He has three touchdown catches against LSU the past two seasons and would love to add another trip to the end zone today.
It wouldn't surprise Danny Nutt, who said Birmingham will be remembered as a "playmaker in big games. It's as simple as that." Howard agreed and believes it would be the perfect storybook ending to the playmaker's career.
"You'll never forget something like that catch," Birmingham said. "I've been asked, if I have to do it again, would I be willing to do it. My answer has always been, ‘Yeah.' Hopefully it doesn't come down to that.
"But if that time comes and it gets to that point where we need somebody to go out there and make a play, I will be on the field."
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