THE FLATS – As Darren Waller heads into his sophomore season, he is attempting to make the leap to the next level, both as a wide receiver and on special teams.
It turns out that the most important part of making that leap might be where he lands, at least as far as special teams goes.
Beginning in 2012, the NCAA has put into effect a rule that prohibits players from leaping over blockers in an attempt to block a punt or field goal.
It had been common practice and one that the 6-5, 228-pound Waller, who also played basketball at North Cobb High School, employed, last year doing so successfully at Virginia.
“When we played Virginia I leaped up and blocked a field goal and I landed on top of the pile and the refs didn’t call it,” he recalled. “Now you’ve got to be more cautious. I remember when I dove over last year I would land on people’s shoulders and heads and it just wasn’t a good result for everybody.
“[Special Teams Coach Dave Walkosky] had me doing a lot of drills in the spring where it’s not just me diving over the top, it’s me going after it to block it like everybody else is doing,” he added. “I feel like I can do that, too, and still bring a lot of things to the table on special teams.”
Waller understands the quixotic pursuit that is attempting to block kicks and is all-in, regardless of the disregard for one’s own body.
“It’s effort and you can’t be worried about somebody knocking you off or anything like that,” he said. “You have to have the mentality that you’re going to go get it. You can’t think about anything else other than just going straight for the ball or you’ll get distracted by something. Say a guy is blocking down on you, you can’t look at him and try to avoid him. You just have to go straight through and go get it.”
That idea of “go straight through and go get it” also should serve Waller well on kickoff return, punt return, extra point and field goal, as well as kick block, all areas in which he played last season, or his primary pursuit of earning a starting spot at wide receiver.
With the size and speed to potentially overwhelm smaller defenders, the Acworth, Ga., native heads into 2012 physically and mentally stronger.
He credits the physical growth to the off-season conditioning program under Director of Player Development John Sisk, and the mental strength to a conversation he had with Head Coach Paul Johnson and Wide Receivers Coach Al “Buzz” Preston.
“Just sitting down with Coach Johnson and Coach ‘Buzz’ in the off-season, I’ve just got to bring a different attitude to the table,” he said. “A more physical attitude, ‘How am I going to beat this guy? How am I going to get around him?’ as opposed to an attitude of ‘How is he going to stop me? How can he keep up with me for four quarters?’ It’s more of an attitude and being more physical. That’s going to open a ton of things up.”
Ideally he could see the field both at receiver AND on special teams.
“They’ve got starting receivers at the gunners on punt team, kickoff team has a lot of starters on it,” he said. “We need to get out of the bottom — Georgia Tech was last in the ACC in kickoff return average in 2011, ninth in kickoff coverage, and sixth in punt return and punting — and get to the top. Coach Walkosky can do that. Everybody’s buying in. It’s pretty cool.”
With such enthusiasm there’s no saying where Waller is going to land — anywhere will do, just as long as it’s not on top of another player.
He can live with that.
“Leaping over the top is fun and everything,” he said. “It always hurt when I came down, though, my shoulder or my neck or something. It was fun while it lasted.”