Tom Uhlman/Associated Press
Tom Uhlman/Associated Press
ENGLEWOOD – The linebacker sprawled out and barely got a hand on Trindon Holliday.
Not enough of a hand.
Eight seconds later, Holliday was gone. The NFL’s shortest – and quite possibly fastest – player says he has never been caught from behind, and it didn’t come close to happening last Sunday, either; the 105-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Cincinnati went down as the longest play in Broncos history.
“After I broke the first wave, and then I saw that one of my guys had made a block on the kicker, I just pushed it to the outside, and that was it,” Holliday said.
This actually was the fourth time the 5-foot-5 Holliday had returned a kick for a score this year. The first three came in the preseason with the Houston Texans, which is why the second-year player made the team.
But when the regular season started, Houston struggled in its return game. It currently is ranked last in the NFL in kickoff returns. Holliday’s lack of versatility – at 5-5, he can’t really be an effective receiver – didn’t help his cause, and on Oct. 10, the Texans had to cut ties with their sixth-round draft pick from 2011.
“By no means is it a statement that what we thought of Trindon,” Texans coach Gary Kubiak said on the day they cut him.
The Broncos, still in the hunt for a bona fide returner after losing Eddie Royal to free agency in the offseason, knew about Holliday because they had prepared to play the Texans in September. They decided to take a chance.
“When he became available, I think our personnel department did a great job of putting in a claim, and we were fortunate enough to get him,” coach John Fox said. “I think he’ll just continue to get better as we move forward, whether it’s punts or kicks.”
Make no mistake, there is room for improvement.
The first time Holliday touched the ball for the Broncos, a teammate blocked an opponent into his line of vision and Holliday muffed a punt, which led to a field goal for San Diego. That was the game in which the Chargers took a 24-0 lead, but the Broncos rallied for the win.
Only a few minutes after Holliday’s big return against the Bengals last Sunday, he and Lance Ball got crossed up on a kickoff that bounced at the 3-yard line and checked up. The Broncos started that drive from their 1.
“It was poor judgment on that one,” Holliday said.
Excusable, however, especially considering the way he can change a game.
“He’s obviously got some explosive capabilities,” Peyton Manning said.
As a college recruit, Holliday’s 40 times were so fast – he once cracked 4.3 in high-top basketball shoes – that stories circulated of coaches recalibrating their stopwatches to make sure they were reading things right.
In 2007, Holliday finished second in the 100 meters to Tyson Gay at U.S. track and field championships. He could have gone to world championships but instead chose to attend LSU, where he returned four kicks for touchdowns and won the NCAA title at 100 meters in 2009.
His winning time at NCAAs – 10 seconds flat – made him the fastest player to ever play college football – faster than Willie Gault, Herschel Walker and “Bullet” Bob Hayes, the receiver who gets much of the credit for forcing NFL defenses to start playing zone.
Players with that kind of speed almost always get a chance if they decide to go the football route, and instead of pursuing a track career, Holliday tried for the NFL.
Among the problems return specialists face these days, however, is a drastically reduced number of opportunities.
In an attempt to reduce injuries caused by players sprinting the full length of the field on special teams, the NFL moved kickoffs up five yards at the start of 2011.
That year, the number of kickoffs returned in the league fell from 2,033 to 1,375 – by 32 percent, according to STATS LLC. Halfway through 2012, the league in on pace for 1,292 returns.
Not surprisingly, the number of game-changing kickoff returns, and returners, dramatically has decreased, as well. There were 23 kickoff returns for touchdowns and 57 others into opponents’ territory in 2010 but only nine TDs and 27 across the 50 in 2011. Holliday’s was the seventh return for a touchdown in 2012, as the season reaches its halfway point.
The 105-yard sprint was Holliday’s first NFL touchdown.
“I think it can come in bunches,” he said.
The Carolina Panthers are next, Sunday in Charlotte.
“He’s a guy we liked and looked at at one time, too,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “But when he was on the waiver wire, we didn’t have room, and I think Denver did a nice job. He’s shown he was explosive last week. And now I’ve got an upset stomach having to worry about him, as well.”