Not long after making an acrobatic one-handed catch against the Green Bay Packers, then rookie wide receiver Terry McLaurin chatted with former Cathedral High School football coach Rick Streiff, who made the trip from Indianapolis with his wife to watch "such a great young man."
"Caught the ball with my hands, coach, didn't I?" McLaurin asked, referencing all the times Streiff got on him for corralling passes with his body.
"Yes sir, you did," Streiff responded.
Seven years ago, McLaurin was a four-star recruit who did not receive a scholarship from Ohio State initially because Urban Meyer said his hands were "not necessarily what we would like them to be at this point in time." Two years ago, his hands drastically improved, and McLaurin joined the Washington Football Team as a third-round pick and the 12th receiver taken. The team liked his offensive skillset but loved his special teams potential, ranking him as the No. 1 special teamer on its draft board.
Nowadays, McLaurin is a captain, a role model and one of the best and most reliable young wideouts in the NFL. He's coming off his first 1,000-yard receiving season and preparing for a 2021 campaign that will include by far his best supporting cast.
When Washington is on the clock during the NFL Draft this weekend, it'll hope to find the next Terry McLaurin to add to its blossoming roster. But as his former coaches know, players (and people) like McLaurin are hard to find.
"There's a part of me that's surprised just because everything has to be perfect [in the NFL], but not surprised because that's what Terry McLaurin does," Streiff said. "He makes goals and does what he has to do to reach them."
What sets McLaurin apart, Ohio State wide receivers coach Brian Hartline said, is his "rare combination" of speed, strength, mental capacity and willingness to get better. Most players McLaurin's size (6-foot, 210 pounds) don't run the 40-yard dash in 4.35 seconds. Those that do, Hartline added, don't have as good of feet or ability to change direction. And even if a wideout has all of these physical traits, he likely doesn't have the intelligence, laser-focused mentality or thirst for information that McLaurin does.
Considering McLaurin's makeup, it's not surprising that he's been efficient everywhere he's been dating back to his days at Cathedral. It all comes down to making the most of his chances, and McLaurin has pounced on every single one.
"Terry just took another step in his progression as an NFL receiver," Hartline said of McLaurin's 2020 campaign, "and a lot of things he was doing weren't out of left field. It's basically what he is and how he operates. He's just having more opportunities to do it."
In Hartline's mind, McLaurin is using the same problem-solving skills he honed as an elite special teamer at Ohio State. The Buckeyes' culture is built on their best players playing special teams, and according to Meyer, McLaurin was one of the best gunners he’s ever had. In these situations, there was no margin for error. If McLaurin did not do his job at a high level, he risked giving up a game-altering play.
"I feel like the best athletes problem solve," Hartline said. "Football wise, whether it be mid-route or mid-game or whatever it is, they know they have an objective. How do I get to my objective?"
As new wide receivers coach Drew Terrell mentioned when he was promoted in February, McLaurin’s ceiling will largely depend on his consistency. McLaurin took a significant step forward in Year 2, handling the responsibility of being a No. 1 wide receiver while recording 50% more catches for 22% more yards compared to his rookie campaign. But can he exceed those totals this season and next? And then can he sustain that level of excellence in the years after that?
His former coaches believe that answer is yes. McLaurin has thrived amid unfavorable circumstances -- unproven pass-catchers, uneven running games and several different starting quarterbacks -- and now he'll have the opportunity to catch passes from veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick and play alongside proven pass-catchers in Curtis Samuel and Adam Humphries. No longer will defenses be able to constantly double team McLaurin -- Streiff noticed a lot of this during his first two seasons -- without detrimental repercussions.
"The defense has now got to defend more of the field versus taking away the one quarter of the field that Terry is on, or at least initially lines up on," Streiff said. "Then they can put him in motion and do some other things to help get him 1-on-1, because if he can get 1-on-1 with a whole lotta folks, he's going to win the majority of those battles."
That said, Hartline and Streiff see McLaurin's legacy going beyond his individual statistics. "Any time your best players are your hardest workers, you're onto something," Hartline said, and McLaurin certainly fits that mold, which will only help head coach Ron Rivera build a sustainable winning culture.
McLaurin is also a leader, both vocally and by example, and model citizen in his hometown as well as his new home. Streiff mentioned that during the holidays, McLaurin took care of some Cathedral families that did not have much money for Christmas. He's also befriended Joe Clyne, who is a quadriplegic after a traumatic injury 21 years ago. This past season, McLaurin surprised Clyne with game-worn autographed shoes and gloves.
McLaurin arrived in Washington as a potential contributor, but in two years, he's become so much more than that. To many, his rapid rise has come out of nowhere. But those who know him best always knew what he was capable of.
"Terry's doing Terry things," Hartline said. "He's rolling."
"He's a hell of a football player, but he's also a pretty damn good kid, too," Streiff added. "I could some day see him being your guy's Walter Payton Man of the Year kind of candidate. I think he's that kind of a quality human."