By Mark Soltau
STANFORD, Calif. - When Drew Terrell returned a punt 76 yards for a touchdown last Saturday night against Duke, the Stanford sideline lit up like a firecracker. Having seen many near misses, coaches and teammates were ecstatic to see the senior wide receiver from Chandler, Ariz., finally go the distance.
"We kind of made a big deal about getting Drew to the house because he had been so close in his career," said special teams coordinator Pete Alamar. "We talked about it in fall camp and we talk about it every week. He did a great job and got some timely blocks."
An honorable mention All-Pac-12 return specialist as a sophomore and junior, the 5-foot-11, 180-pound Terrell also found the end zone on a 19-yard pass from quarterback Josh Nunes. Terrell became the first Cardinal player to score on offense and special teams in the same game since Chris Owusu in 2009.
"I got a lot of love from my teammates, coaching staff, family and friends back home," Terrell said. "It just makes me want to keep going. It gives me confidence that I can do it. Hopefully, there are better things to come."
Terrell would love to contribute again Saturday, when No. 21 Stanford (2-0) plays host to No. 2 USC (2-0) at Stanford Stadium in the Pac-12 opener for both teams. The game is a sellout.
"We're going to give them the best that we've got," he said. "We've beaten them three years in a row and I know they're going to come up here with all the confidence in the world. We just have to be focused, have a good week of practice and execute when it comes to game time."
Terrell had a 32-yard punt return against the Trojans last year in the heart-stopping 56-48 triple-overtime win in Los Angeles.
"Obviously, they're a real good football team," said Terrell. "We were just able to outlast them. It was back and forth and we kept fighting. The character of last year's team wasn't going to be denied. We did a good job of finding a way to win that football game."
Terrell has done a good job of sticking with it. At Hamilton High School, he had 70 receptions and produced 1,400 yards of total offense as a senior. Ranked as the 10th best overall recruit in Arizona and top receiver by Rivals.com, he figured the sky was the limit in college.
But after choosing Stanford over Arizona State, he caught one pass as a true freshman in 2009, two in 2010, and eight last season. Not exactly the numbers he expected.
"It's definitely been tough," Terrell said. "It's given me a lot of time to think and mature and really decide what I want. It's been extremely tough going from a heralded high school player where everybody says how good you are, and getting to college and having to wait your turn. I had confidence when I got my turn that I would make something happen. I saw guys like Doug Baldwin and Griff Whalen do it. As hard as it was, I was just fighting to be patient and knew when I got my opportunity I had to capitalize on it."
Through two games, Terrell has six catches for 72 yards and two touchdowns. "He's the shining example of what patience and perseverance can do for you," said David Shaw, the Bradford M. Freeman Director of Football. "Along the way, he could have gotten frustrated. Every time we put him in the game, he does exactly what he's supposed to do."
"The thing I really appreciate about Drew is you know what you're going to get," he said. "He's not a guy who's going to go off the cuff and do something crazy. He's just the epitome of consistency."
Terrell elevated his game in spring practice. He runs good routes and is adept at beating man coverage. He's aggressive to the ball, is a great blocker, and has terrific hands.
"He brings his lunch pail every day," said Nunes. "He gets after it in the weight room and always does his conditioning. He does all the things you are expected to do, and that really translates to me on the field.
"The other thing is, he knows the offense inside and out. He is really cool, calm and collected. I really appreciate having a guy who is level-headed out there. I know where he's going to be and what he's thinking."
Terrell has been returning punts since he was 8 years old, and credits baseball for his excellent hand-eye coordination. While catching punts might seem nerve-racking to some, he loves it.
"I'm actually really calm," Terrell said. "It's something I've always done. I enjoy being back there by myself, being the lone guy representing the team and having to make a play. It's kind of ironic, but I kind of feel at peace when I'm back there." What goes through his mind when the ball is in the air?
"You have to maintain your poise and be somewhat fearless to be able to handle 11 guys bearing down on you," he said.
Added Alamar, "He's very focused back there. He finds the ball, and does a great job of fielding them."
Terrell has a simple mantra about his position: Catch all balls, make one guy miss, and never let one guy bring you down.
"If he can do those three things, he's going to have a lot of really good returns," Alamar said.
Starting at age 2, Terrell attended every ASU home game with his grandfather, and the school made him his first scholarship offer.
"I thought I was going to be a Sun Devil my whole life," he said.
Enter Stanford. After a couple visits, he couldn't pass up the combination of academics and athletics.
"It's the balance I've looked for my whole life," said Terrell, a political science major. "When I got the call, I committed the same day."
That delighted his mother, Marilee, who usually makes a 12-hour drive from Arizona to attend his home games.
"She's a trooper," said Terrell.
So is he. While things haven't always gone as planned, Terrell has remained positive, worked hard, and become a big-play threat for his team.
"I thrive on competition," he said. "It brings out the best in you. I think sport teaches you a lot about life as well. Life is really competitive. You get out of it what you put into it."