Nothing in football makes you drop your jaw quite like a spectacular catch. Odell Beckahm Jr.’s one handed marvel is a moment we can all remember where we were when we saw it. Receivers like the Giants’ David Tyree, Pittsburgh’s Santonio Holmes, and Seattle’s Jermaine Kearse used out of this world catches to cement themselves in Super Bowl history.
Moving to college, Michael Crabtree beat double coverage to knock off the Longhorns and make the most famous play in Texas Tech history. Hunter Renfrow sealed his fate in Clemson lore by walking off in the National Championship against Alabama.
On an even smaller scale, North Carolina’s had some pretty memorable catches, too. Bug Howard had two jump balls, including the game winner, where he just out-manned the Pitt defenders in 2016. Sam Aiken’s diving touchdown reception against Florida State in 2001 is one of the most athletic plays in Tar Heel history. I’m still trying to figure out how Hakeem Nicks made this catch against West Virginia.
All this is great, but it’s also very obviously unsustainable: Spectacular catches like this are a great result for an offense, but often only happen because the process wasn’t perfect: a slightly off-target throw, a receiver without the expected separation. As we as a football society become more knowledgeable, the name of the game for wide receivers isn’t so much ability to make spectacular plays as it is the ability to just get open.
Hauling in an easy throw when there isn’t a defender within four yards of you might not land receivers on SportsCenter as often as one handed wonders, but that’s not why you play the game, and there is nothing more beneficial to a quarterback than a receiver that can create space.
Fortunately, creating separation with his speed, discipline, agility, body control, and eyes is something that Tar Heel receiver Dyami Brown has excelled at through the first three games of the season. Let’s break down his opening touchdown at Miami, which is an absolute work of route running art by Brown.
Against soft coverage, no matter the playcall, a receiver’s first job is pretty simple: get the defensive back on their heels. A wideout wants a defensive back to be moving backwards when they break the route or unable to keep up with them if they’re just running verts. The first three to five steps of every route against not-press should look identical: fast and upfield, to make the defensive back think they’re going upfield.
Once they’ve done that, though, the second thing a receiver is trying to do in his route is almost counter-intuitive: eliminate the cushion that the defensive back gives them. Defensive backs are aware that receivers are trying to get them to think they’re going deep every time, so defenders are taught to stay in their back pedal and not open up their hips to run with the receiver until the receiver is in their hip. Receivers have to eat up the space between them and their man and get into their hip pocket, so that they can get the defender to open their hips to run with them, at which point it’s impossible to recover and the receiver has his DB at his mercy. Any double move or breaking route is ideally broken off at the defenders hip.
Dyami Brown did this perfectly against Miami cornerback Trajan Bandy, one of the best cornerbacks in the country, on that first touchdown. He ran a hitch and go, faking like he was going to stop and run a hitch route before taking off. Brown’s double move totally froze Bandy, freeing him for the long ball from Howell.
One of my favorite things about this route from Brown is that he never stops his momentum to fake his hitch, maximizing the amount of separation he gets while the corner is biting. That seems impossible given how exaggerated Brown’s fake is, but look at this: Below is a screenshot of the moment Brown started his double move. Look the difference between his shoulders and legs just like a quarterback exaggerating shoulder movement on a pump fake, receivers overuse their shoulders to fake like they’re breaking off a route but, by keeping their lower bodies pointed straight, are able to keep running forward.
Also, look how close Brown is to the defender. The defensive back started about six yards off and Brown closed that to about half a yard vertically when he made his move. Right now the defender is opening his hips to run deep with Brown, then has to react to Brown’s shoulders and tries to change direction and he’s frozen.
If Bandy was making a flash back movie about his life, this is the *record scratch* *freeze frame* “Yup that’s me, bet you’re wondering how I ended up here” moment. There is no way with Brown going full speed and the defender frozen that he can catch up to Brown. By bursting off the line, eating up space, and using his shoulders to fake breaking off his route while keeping his momentum, Brown turned half a yard of separation into five yards at the point of the catch.
Instead of Sam Howell having to fit the ball into a 6” window or Brown having to make an acrobatic catch; Howell just has to not overthrow Brown who just has to not overthink the catch at that point. Let’s put it together:
Brown’s touchdown against Miami is just a (particularly explosive) example, but this kind of route running is something he’s done all season, which is the biggest reason for hisincrease in production. Last season, in nine games Brown had seventeen receptions and a touchdown. Just in the first three games of the 2019 season, Brown has eleven receptions, and has tripled his 2018 production with three touchdowns so far.
The jump in production isn’t a fluke and it isn’t by accident. I wrote in my receiver preview in August that Brown has the best footwork on the team, and combining that with his speed makes him a lethal deep threat and explosive after the catch. So far, he’s proving me right.