When Texas Tech cornerback Olaoluwa Falemi was flagged for pass-interference penalties in each of the first three quarters last week, defensive coordinator Matt Wallerstedt felt compelled to make a change.
But change to whom?
Of Tech’s two second-team cornerbacks, Jeremy Reynolds hadn’t played meaningful minutes since suffering a season-ending knee injury last September and Derrick Mays seemed like the forgotten man.
A starter for 10 games in his first three seasons, Mays had been on a downward trajectory since former coach Tommy Tuberville branded him late in the 2011 season as a corner who’d lost his confidence. Then he spent all of the last school year bothered by a painful left knee that needed surgery.
But Mays looked anything but unsure of himself in the Red Raiders’ 37-27 victory at West Virginia, breaking hard on the ball to make five tackles — all of them important — in a tense last 11/2 quarters.
“I knew what was going on, and my knee feels better,” said Mays, who had arthroscopic surgery this spring. “Other than that, just watching the hips and making plays; that’s what you have to do. My body felt good. My knee’s healthy. I got an opportunity and took advantage of it.”
As long as outcomes were in doubt this season, Wallerstedt had kept starting cornerbacks Bruce Jones and Falemi in the game. But when Falemi committed pass interference three times in five series, Wallerstedt turned to Mays, and the senior from Killeen Shoemaker followed the Red Raiders’ “next man up” mantra admirably.
Mays stopped running back Charles Sims for 1 yard on a first down. He fought through a blocker and wrecked a wide-receiver screen for no gain. He made two stops on a three-and-out, including tackling the quarterback for 2 yards on third-and-8. And on West Virginia’s last possession, he stopped Sims for a 2-yard loss on third-and-2.
“Huge. Huge,” Wallerstedt said. “Derrick Mays was huge for us.”
That sequence alone ensured Mays’ career wouldn’t end quietly. He’d played a key role in a big road win.
“It was kind of bittersweet,” senior safety Tre Porter said, “becuase Ola Falemi wasn’t really playing as well as he usually plays. But to see D. Mays being ready to come in and play, it’s a great sign. I’m proud of D. Mays. His last year. He’s been working so hard. I’m really proud of him to have his opportunity and take advantage of it.”
Mays started twice as a freshman, including Tech’s bowl victory against Northwestern, and made five more starts as a sophomore in 2011. But in November of that season, explaining lineup changes at cornerback, Tuberville said then-sophomores Jarvis Phillips and Mays had lost their confidence. Tuberville added that when that happens to a cornerback in the Big 12, it’s “not a pretty sight.”
Mays politely disagrees.
“I mean, you have your ups and downs, especially playing at corner, but I never lost confidence,” he said. “I just feel like they lost confidence in me, at the end of the day. ... If you put me in, I was going to do my best, and that’s all I can really do.”
Mays added, “I never really bashed myself to where I lost confidence. I’ve always felt I’ve been the same person, and nothing really changed me. That’s what he said, but I thought differently.”
What Mays did lose was trust in his legs. He had a hamstring injury midway through the 2011 season and a bad knee that dogged him throughout last year. He played in 11 games in 2012, but not as much as Cornelius Douglas, Eugene Neboh and Jones.
“I think I tore my meniscus last year in (preseason) camp and played through it,” Mays said. “After a long period of time, coming into the spring, it got to the point where it wouldn’t react with me. I couldn’t do anything. I felt sharp pains.
“Went in there and they found out I had a lateral meniscus tear and also had a bone defect. It wasn’t a big bone defect, but I had lost a lot of cartilage.”
Having it fixed might explain why Mays looked more decisive breaking on the ball and making plays Saturday than he had since early in his career.
“It’s starting to feel better,” he said. “I’m glad I’ve got it to where I can cut and make moves and make plays.”
The difference between Falemi and Mays on Saturday was sufficiently stark that head coach Kliff Kingsbury and Wallerstedt said the starting job for Saturday’s game at Oklahoma would be determined by how they performed in practice this week.
Mays said he’ll give the same effort and be content however the chips fall.
“It’s my last year, and I’m proud to be here and be in this situation where we’re 7-0,” he said. “If I don’t play, I’m just glad to see these young people do what they do. I’m just glad we’re in this position and hope we keep pushing and reach our limits of what we want.”