The rise of Devin Duvernay, the Texas WR with the best hands in football

Sam Khan Jr.ESPN Staff Writer10 Minute Read

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AUSTIN, Texas -- When the ball settled into Devin Duvernay's hands and he turned upfield with LSU All-America safety Grant Delpit bearing down, the Texas receiver had one objective.

"Make him miss."

One glance at Duvernay's stature (he's 5-foot-11) and a brief check of his résumé (once the Texas high school 100-meter champion) suggested he would plant and juke and go around the 6-3, 203-pound junior.


"Break his tackle," Duvernay recalled thinking. "Don't go down."

Duvernay's father, Henry, who closely watches every game, knew Devin wasn't shying away.

"When there's nowhere else to go," Henry said, "you have to go forward."

At the 17-yard line, Duvernay and Delpit braced for contact. Delpit went low, seeking Duvernay's midsection. Duvernay dipped his right shoulder. They collided.

Duvernay felt "a thud," and Delpit bounced off, crumpling to the turf. Duvernay remained upright, turned up the sideline and gained 4 more yards before linebacker Michael Divinity Jr. knocked him out of bounds.

The usually quiet, reserved Duvernay ("He charges by the word," Texas spokesman John Bianco joked), turned to Delpit and appeared to speak as each jogged back to their respective huddles.

"I said a lil' something," Duvernay said with a smile.

The violent encounter went down in the box score as an ordinary 4-yard pass in a slugfest, one in which Delpit and LSU got the last laugh, 45-38. Duvernay made more impactful plays that night, including 44- and 15-yard touchdown grabs.

But his one-on-one win in that moment over all-everything Delpit was a glimpse into the diverse skill set of one of this season's breakout stars, a pivotal piece to the No. 11 Longhorns' success as they ready for No. 6 Oklahoma in Saturday's Red River Showdown.

"The anger he runs with once he has the ball in his hands and the physicality is so impressive for a slot receiver," Texas coach Tom Herman said. "I'm glad he's on our team."

The morning before Texas opened training camp, receivers coach Drew Mehringer called Duvernay. The coaching staff was mulling moving Duvernay from outside receiver to the slot.

Past receivers in Herman's offense put up huge numbers there. Lil'Jordan Humphrey caught 86 balls for 1,176 yards last season. In Herman's Houston days, Demarcus Ayers (98 catches, 1,222 yards in 2015) and Linell Bonner (98 catches, 1,118 yards in 2016) also excelled there.

Furthermore, it's the same position Duvernay played at Sachse High in Garland, Texas.

"I think it can be a good spot for you," Mehringer told him.

"I think I can do it. Let's do it," the senior responded.

The results were instant. Duvernay, who hadn't caught more than 41 passes in a season since his 2016 arrival at Texas, is on pace for 108 receptions. His 45 catches so far this season is tied for second in the FBS.

Devin Duvernay is on pace for 108 receptions.Ben Queen/USA TODAY Sports

More impressive is how sticky Duvernay's hands are. He hasn't dropped a pass in a game since stepping on campus, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. Since the start of 2018, no player has more receptions without a drop than Duvernay (86).

Last week, Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger was asked when he remembers seeing Duvernay drop a pass most recently.

"Never," Ehlinger said.

Duvernay was more modest, telling reporters he drops on occasional ball in practice. But Ehlinger said, "Don't let him fool you; he rarely drops them in practice."

But in a game? High school, maybe?

"Never," Henry Duvernay said.

"I honestly can't remember," Devin said.

Henry believes it's natural, but it also came from years of work in the family's backyard with Devin and Devin's twin brother, Donovan, who is a redshirt junior defensive back for the Longhorns. All the way back to their pee wee football days, Henry worked with them on how to hold the ball correctly and how to keep their hands strong.

"Basically, if the ball touches your hands, you should catch it," Henry said.

These days, Devin gets plenty of work on the Jugs machine, catching the ball from as many different angles as possible to increase difficulty.

"He's extremely sure-handed," Herman said. "If you get it close to him, [we] feel comfortable that he's going to reel it in."

Duvernay is comfortable in his new position and is a valuable security blanket for Ehlinger. Duvernay catches 85% of his targets, the highest rate among players with at least 40 targets this season. His 26 receptions for a first down is fourth nationally. He had his best statistical performance in the Longhorns' biggest game, catching 12 passes for 154 yards against LSU.

"I'm extremely comfortable with the way he runs routes, where he's going to be," Ehlinger said. "So it was an easy transition for him moving into the slot. Extremely smart football player, really comfortable with the offense, and we've continued to develop on the field and off the field."

Duvernay also has exceptional strength, as evidenced by his showdown with Delpit. But what he's been known for since his prep days is his speed.

After a freshman year at Sachse in which he played three sports, Duvernay decided to focus on football and track. Sachse football coach Mark Behrens remembers Duvernay outrunning the varsity athletes while on the junior varsity squad in his first high school meet.

One of Duvernay's central goals upon joining the track team was winning the state's 100-meter dash championship. As a junior, he did, in 10.27 seconds. In Texas, where track talent runs deep, it's a prestigious title.

"That's still, to this day, one of the biggest accomplishments that I'm proud of," he said.

Despite Duvernay's sprinting success, football remained the primary focus. That's what he would play at the next level, and the offers came flooding in. Name the program, it offered him a scholarship.

"Everybody in America recruited him," Behrens said. "They would ask me, what kinda kid is he, speedwise? And I would say: He's a football player that runs track. There's a lot of track guys playing football that can't play. But he's a football player that was a 100-meter champion in the state of Texas, and that tells you right there that he's pretty quick."

Twins Devin and Donovan Duvernay shared plenty of things growing up. They shared a vehicle in high school. They shared an enjoyment of video games, fighting tooth-and-nail to win a FIFA match. Obviously, they shared success on the gridiron. So when they planned on college, it was natural they would go together.

Devin Duvernay won the Texas 100-meter dash championship in high school, but football remained his focus.Tommy Gilligan/USA TODAY Sports

"They definitely had opportunities to go separate ways," Henry said, "But that was their decision. They wanted to play college football together."

They initially realized that goal when they signed with Baylor in 2016. The Bears were coming off their third consecutive season with double-digit wins. They were playing in a sparkling new facility, McLane Stadium. They were annual Big 12 title contenders.

In late May, Devin and Donovan had their belongings packed. Their mother, Zena, made sure the boys had everything they needed for the move to Waco. Three days before the twins were to leave for summer classes, the news broke that Baylor would fire Art Briles in the wake of a sexual assault scandal at the school.

The Duvernays, like 20 others who had signed in the 2016 class, were suddenly in limbo. Devin and Donovan, upon hearing the news, told their parents that night that they didn't want to go to Baylor.

Like several others in the signing class, the Duvernays sought a release from their letters of intent. There was one twist: Baylor never submitted Devin's letter of intent to the Big 12 office, which it was supposed to have done within 14 days of its signature. With no letter of intent, Devin was free to sign anywhere he pleased. Donovan, whose letter of intent was valid, was eventually released from it.

Dozens of schools inquired in the immediate aftermath -- "It was basically like going through the recruiting process all over again," Henry Duvernay said -- but there were only three the Duvernays considered seriously: Oklahoma, TCU and Texas.

"They wanted to stay close to home," Henry said.

There was a comfort level with coach Charlie Strong and the staff, and the influx of top recruits to the roster gave Devin the feeling that the program was about to trend upward.

"I knew we had some good younger players coming in and felt like we could change something, do something special," Devin said.

The turn wasn't immediate. Devin's and Donovan's true freshman season -- during which Devin played but Donovan redshirted -- was a difficult one for Texas, as the Longhorns went 5-7 and fired Strong in the aftermath. But their hunch, once Herman entered the equation, proved prescient. The Longhorns are on an upward trajectory.

Under Herman, the Longhorns won 10 games last season for the first time since 2009. They've signed back-to-back top-five recruiting classes and are on pace for a third straight. This season, they're off to a 4-1 start and should be contenders for the Big 12 championship.

"Kinda starting off at the bottom and working our way up makes it a lot more sweeter," Devin said.

Devin Duvernay moved this season to the slot, a position that's been successful in Tom Herman's system.John Rivera/Icon Sportswire

If you haven't heard much from Devin Duvernay before this season, that's not a coincidence.

Even as youths, when Devin and Donovan were winning Turkey Bowls in Garland Pee Wee football, their father advised them to let their actions speak for them.

"I think they carried that on," Henry said.

That's not unlike a certain prominent, tight-lipped cousin of theirs, Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray.

The trio had a special moment in last season's Red River Showdown, playing together in the Cotton Bowl, a stone's throw from where the families currently reside. The Duvernays and the Murrays keep in regular contact, and that day was a special one -- for some more than others.

"We took a little group picture with the Oklahoma side and the Texas side," Henry said. "The Oklahoma side wasn't too happy because we won the game."

The Oklahoma side got its redemption in December, when the Sooners beat Texas in the Big 12 championship game.

Devin said he and Murray keep in touch and text occasionally. They didn't train together growing up but did see each other on holidays. Murray sent Devin a message after his big performance against LSU. The families see each other regularly, and those gatherings can often center on football, whether it's watching Texas play or traveling to see Murray and the Cardinals.

Devin's reserved, no-nonsense approach could give him a good shot to join his cousin in the NFL next season.

"I believe it's all business to him," Behrens said. "And the year he's having, he's going to have an opportunity to continue that business."

People have noticed. On Wednesday, Herman called a team meeting to name Duvernay a team captain, only the second time Herman has ever done so in the middle of a season. As his teammates showered him with raucous applause, Duvernay smiled.

"Every single game, practice, I'm gonna go out there and give it my all... It's all for y'all," he told them.

With his production, his strength, his hands, his speed and his ability after the catch, Duvernay checks nearly every box desired in a pass-catcher. He's versatile, too, returning kicks and taking a handoff last week for a touchdown against West Virginia.

"He's extremely talented in every aspect of receiver," Ehlinger said. "You never know what he's going to do -- he could run around you with his speed or he could lower his shoulder, and he's shown that. And he's extremely fast on top of that. It's really hard to cover him, and it's really hard to tackle him. And those two combined usually make a really good receiver."

The difficulty tackling his compact, yet chiseled, 206-pound frame is something Delpit experienced firsthand. Duvernay wants to win, whether by foot or by force.

"I want to punish players," he said. "When you see a top-tier player, an All-American or such-and-such, that's when I try to up it some more and punish them."

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