COLLEGE PARK, Md. – Three years ago, Derrick Hayward arrived at Maryland as a lightly-recruited, raw talent from the Eastern Shore. The 2013 graduate of Wicomico High (Salisbury, Md.) certainly looked the part at 6-feet-5, with a power forward’s wingspan, but his route running; hands; footwork; quickness; and awareness all needed plenty of fine-tuning.
In fact, many analysts figured he’d either transition to outside linebacker after a year or two, or he’d have to transfer down a level. The latter looked like a distinct possibility after two rather pedestrian seasons in College Park, followed by the February coaching change that saw D.J. Durkin assume control of the program.
As with any regime takeover, there were several offseason departures who didn’t fit into Durkin’s plans. Hayward’s transfer seemed imminent too, but the Delaware native not only persevered, but he began grabbing the new staff’s attention.
“My biggest emphasis this offseason was to pick up and then maintain my weight, a weight sustainable for a Big Ten tight end. And then my ball skills. Every day I was out on the JUGS machines and catching balls from Perry [Hills],” said Hayward, who is up to 235 pounds. “I had something to prove.”
Slowly but surely, Hayward began to earn more reps during practice. Then, after spring ball and fall camp, he eventually pulled even with incumbent starter Avery Edwards.
And after two weeks worth of regular season games, including a touchdown reception against FIU, Hayward supplanted Edwards, earning the No. 1 gig heading into UCF Sept. 17.
“Derrick has been tremendous. He’s been a constant since Day One of spring, and he’s kept improving,” Durkin said. “He was not where he is now on the depth chart at the start of the spring. He’s done really well and he’s earned that spot… He’s blocking well, helping us on the perimeter, and he can run; stretch the field; and has good ball skills. That position is really critical for us … and he can really help us.”
It took more than just showing off improved hands and route running for Hayward to win Durkin’s favor, however. He, like all of Maryland’s offensive skill players, had to adjust to offensive coordinator Walt Bell’s offense. The breakneck pace was only one area of concern; Hayward also had to learn all the variations of the tight end position. No longer would he just be asked to split out wide or stay in tight.
“In Coach Bell’s offense, the tight end can be split out, in the slot, in tight, in the backfield,” said Hayward, who has also shined on special teams. “So [tight ends] Coach [Pete] Lembo makes sure we know every [skill] position on the field and what needs to be done at each spot. We have to know what the ‘As’ have to do in certain situations, who the backs have to block in certain situations, things like that. Because [the tight ends] all have those responsibilities too.”
Hayward said splitting out was perhaps the easiest spot to learn since he was used to it before Bell’s arrival. And though he wasn’t known for his blocking the last two years, Hayward obviously knew how to execute in-line.
But assuming that hybrid H-back role was a bit more difficult.
“Coming out of the backfield is something I never really had to do before,” Hayward said. “But I just kept working at it with Coach Lembo, and now I’m OK with it.”
“Right now, the [tight end] position, you’re kind of like a human Swiss army knife. You’re going to be a tight end, you’re going to be a fullback. [Hayward], right now, is the one who brings the most to the offense [of the three tight ends]. He may be the most improved player on the offensive roster right now.”
Hayward mentioned that learning the plays, terminology and maintaining the up-tempo pace have taken some adjusting, but the offseason work has paid off. The big tight end said after all the practice reps, the offensive players pretty much have the system down.
“Coach Bell still wants us to go at a faster pace. But we go much faster in practice, so when it gets to the game, it’s easier for us. In practice, we double the tempo,” Hayward said. “And throughout the week, Coach Bell tells us the plays, the downs, and the situations the plays will be used. So if it’s 3rd-and-5 and we’re inside the 20, we know which three plays might be called. It’s never a surprise. We probably only go in with 30-some plays anyway.”
It all came together for Hayward during the second quarter in Week Two at FIU. With the Terps threatening for another score inside the 10-yard line, Hayward released from the slot, came open down the seam and hauled in his first career collegiate touchdown.
“When the safety shot down, I was like, ‘OK, get me the ball,’” Hayward said. “I knew I would be open, and Perry got me the ball.
“It’s been three long years and it finally came. Once I reached the endzone, my first thought was to celebrate with Perry. But it was overall just a great experience.”
Now, he’s hoping it’s the jumpstart to the latter half of his college career. Hayward’s goal moving forward is to establish himself as the clear No. 1 and become a true outlet for Hills and the Maryland quarterbacks.
Not bad for a lightly-recruited prospect from the Eastern Shore.