When Cincinnati receiver Damon Julian saw the ball sailing through the air toward him in the closing seconds against Virginia Tech last week, all he could think was, "Catch the ball this time!"
This was his opportunity to make up for an earlier dropped touchdown pass, a play that left Julian extremely frustrated. His coaches preach "snap and clear" as a way for players to erase an earlier mistake and just focus on the next play. So he looked the ball in, extended his arms and made absolutely sure he cradled the ball to his chest as he dove to the turf, to leave no doubt that he indeed made the catch.
That 39-yard touchdown reception from Munchie Legaux gave Cincinnati a thrilling 27-24 victory over the previously ranked Hokies, and sent folks scrambling to their DVRs to rewind the incredible touchdown reception. At the time, Julian just thought he was doing his job. It was not until he watched the film later that he realized what he had done.
"When you go through something like that, you don’t think about how it happened," Julian said in a phone interview with ESPN.com this week. "But when you go back and look at it ... It opened my eyes a lot. It is making more confident in myself, making me know that I can make certain plays."
Julian was an unknown headed into this season. He played sparingly last year, seeing time in three games and did not have a reception. Before the year began, Cincinnati figured to have players like Alex Chisum, Anthony McClung and Kenbrell Thompkins step up at the receiver position. Damon was a backup.
But he began turning heads in practice with all his hard work, and soon caught the eyes of his coaches. He earned the starting nod against Delaware State, and had four catches for 62 yards and a touchdown. He followed up that game with his spotlight-making performance against the Hokies.
"I can’t say enough about Damon Julian,” coach Butch Jones said. “He’s really dedicated himself for his senior season. He’s got a very quiet confidence about himself. He loves the opportunity to compete. After the game, he makes that winning catch and says, ‘Thank you, coach. I love you.’ I couldn’t be more proud of an individual, the work he’s put in to make this all possible."
While playing high school football in New Jersey, the schools that showed the most interest in him wanted him to play linebacker. Julian had his heart set on playing receiver. He decided to go the prep school route to bring his grades up and make a name for himself at his preferred position. He then transferred to Pierce Community College in Los Angeles.
In 2010, Julian led his team with 57 receptions for a team-high 1,073 yards and 11 touchdown. A former high school teammate of his, Reuben Johnson, kept bringing Julian's game film to the coaching staff. They took a look and set their sights on Julian. When he arrived last season, though, Julian said he was not fully committed to being the best he could be.
"I wasn’t as consistent as I should have been," Julian said. "Going into practice sometimes, I didn’t keep the same mentality. I would tend to bring on whatever my daily problems were so I didn’t have a game mentality. So when I go to practice now, keep the same mentality, a game mentality."
So far that has paid off for Julian. And the Bearcats.