Joyner tempers his drive

Watching WR Willie Haulstead's long recovery helps safety control his aggression

Updated: August 27, 2012, 3:10 PM ET
By David M. Hale | NoleNation

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- It was the first practice of the fall for Florida State. Players wore shorts, and their jerseys slung loosely over their bodies without the heft of shoulder pads to fill them out.

A day earlier, rain and lightning had forced the Seminoles indoors, and the energy that had built throughout a long offseason was practically boiling over by the time players could finally run through live drills.

About an hour in, the slow pace proved too much for Lamarcus Joyner to tolerate.

A lazy pass found the hands of a receiver near the far sideline, and Joyner closed quickly. He came in hard, smacking into the unsuspecting receiver with all the fury that 190 pounds of muscle can deliver before pulling up just short of a catastrophe. The receiver staggered backward and tumbled to the ground.

Jimbo Fisher was irate.

"Come on, Lamarcus," he yelled, before redirecting his concerns toward his assistant coaches. "Are we going to control him this year or what?"

Joyner trudged back to his position, shaking his head in frustration.

This year, he is supposed to be different.

"There have been times," Joyner said. "But I can truthfully say I've overcome that. I've learned to control myself."

***

A year earlier, Joyner's reputation was already firmly established, despite only limited playing time during his freshman campaign with the Seminoles.

In high school, opponents feared Joyner far more than his diminutive size might suggest. He became an elite prospect because of his drive. Joyner never slowed down, regardless of what was in his way.

"From the first time I strapped on pads, I remember being very nervous, and literally not knowing what would happen once I made that contact," Joyner said. "But once I made it, it was like, 'I kind of like it.' "

Willie Haulstead's career was built on absorbing the hits, not delivering them, but his appreciation for contact wasn't much different than Joyner's.

At 6-foot-2, 215 pounds, Haulstead was no sitting duck when he ran routes over the middle. There were yards to be gained, and Haulstead looked for them in places other receivers dared not tread.

And so it was that, during a scrimmage just a few days before the start of the 2011 season, the irresistible force met the immovable object.

***

At the heart of every play, every game, every season is a team's desire to forget its limitations, ignore the pain, block out the fear and march forward. It is Joyner's job to remind them that the limitations and the pain and the fear are all too real.

"You line up and you know you've got a post route, and you know Joyner's coming, no doubt," said receiver Kelvin Benjamin, who despite being nearly a foot taller than Joyner admits he's wary of going up against his teammate in practice. "You're just thinking about catching the ball because you know he's going to hit you. He's coming full speed."

Joyner's style is both intimidating and inspirational. His energy changes the speed of the same, even during practice, safety Karlos Williams said. To keep up with Joyner is a nearly impossible task, yet it's the challenge the rest of the defense works to meet.

"He's a different species," Williams said. "He has the body, the build, the speed, the intelligence to play the game of football, but he plays it all with his heart. Every play, every practice, every rep is done from within. He goes hard every single play."

Defensive coordinator Mark Stoops compared Joyner to Baltimore Ravens safety Ed Reed -- not based on size or strength or accomplishments, but on sheer desire.

"He's one of the guys that is on the edge of his seat and eating it all up," Stoops said. "He wants to be great."

It is everything a coach wants from his players, but so rarely finds.

And for the past year, Fisher has tried to explain to Joyner why he must change.

***

The hit didn't seem particularly vicious at the time.

Haulstead had been leveled, of course, but by Joyner's standards this one hardly stood out.

In the locker room after the scrimmage, Haulstead was still a bit woozy, but he slapped his teammate on the back and offered his approval.

"I apologized when we got in the locker room, and he accepted it," Joyner said. "It was kind of like, 'Good play,' like he was congratulating me. We both didn't know he was going to be gone for the season."

Haulstead was diagnosed with a concussion, though the severity of the injury was harder to discern.

A year earlier, he'd been Florida State's most reliable receiver, finishing with nearly 600 yards and six touchdowns. Haulstead was on his way to becoming a star, he thought. But six weeks after Joyner's hit, he wondered if he'd ever make another catch.

"My head was still hurting, and I was just praying and letting time tell if I was going to play again," Haulstead said. "I was happy at times, I was mad at times."

There was no surgery or rehab that would provide an instant fix. Haulstead's coaches kept telling him the same thing: Rest, relax, feel better. But doing nothing felt wrong.

There were times -- sometimes a few hours, sometimes a few days -- when Haulstead believed he'd turned a corner. He'd wake up sharp, focused. He'd pick up old habits, feel like his old self.

Then a change in lighting or a shift in posture or perhaps just the whim of fate would send lightning bolts through his head and force him back into the dark comfort of his apartment, where the indefinite wait for healing would begin anew.

"Every day, he had to be in the house at certain times because he was sensitive to light," Haulstead's roommate, Rodney Smith, said. "He couldn't do much."

The season progressed and Haulstead languished at home, his rising star now eclipsed by freshmen Rashad Greene and Christian Green. Joyner, starting at safety for the first time, quickly blossomed into one of the most feared defenders in the conference.

Haulstead wasn't angry, but Joyner felt terrible.

"To see what he had going for him, and for me to be at fault of him missing a whole season, that was hurtful," Joyner said. "That's another reason why I kind of pulled back and tried to understand what Coach Fisher and Coach Stoops were talking about."

***

It wasn't just the hit on Haulstead that highlighted the tightrope Florida State walked with Joyner.

As much as Fisher and his staff applauded Joyner's effort and enthusiasm, the passion too often boiled over into something more -- emotional outbursts that drew flags or overzealous hits during practice that put teammates in peril.

Joyner's ferocity was a weapon, discharged indiscriminately and without warning.

"We all need to be disciplined and accountable to each other," Stoops said. "Lamarcus understands that. He wants to do right."

But if Joyner's game instilled fear in the opposition, it was also a product of his own insecurity.

"I was always afraid that maybe if I don't hit in practice, in the game I'd be timid," Joyner said.

Convincing Joyner to relax was a fool's errand, and Fisher understood this. So he set about teaching Joyner to refocus his energy, to go through each rep mentally with the same aggression and determination he displayed physically.

Fisher wanted to see Joyner make better pre-snap reads, take better routes to the ball, attack a receiver with impeccable fundamentals. He didn't need to deliver a devastating blow in practice if he did everything else properly.

"Coaches know what you can do, and the film don't lie," Joyner said. "If the hit was there, lay off. (They) know what you could've done. It's those kind of things, small things."

***

Haulstead is back on the field again this fall, and the headaches are gone. He says he cannot remember the last time he had a symptom of his concussion, but now he has other problems.

During his time away, Smith blossomed as a starter. Greene was last year's breakout star. Benjamin, a redshirt freshman, appears primed for a monster debut.

And then there is Haulstead, a slower, heavier version of the promising sophomore fans saw in 2010, now buried on the depth chart.

The concussion took more than just 13 Saturdays from Haulstead. All those days cooped up in his bedroom to avoid the pounding headaches atrophied his body. At close to 230 pounds, Haulstead needs to lose weight before Fisher will even consider giving him a serious look, and the extra pounds have been slow to come off.

"I've got weight to lose, conditioning to work on," Haulstead said. "But right now, I'm just happy to be playing football again."

Haulstead has a long way to go to regain all he lost, but he's already come far. Nine months ago, he almost gave up on the game. Now he's in a uniform again.

"I just thought, God hasn't gotten me this far to just stop," Haulstead said. "I don't worry about what my role is. Even if it's just sitting on the sideline and cheering someone on, I'm going to do that."

He holds no grudges for what happened. It was a clean hit, Haulstead insists, and he wouldn't want Joyner to change a thing.

Joyner has found some peace, too.

After watching former teammate Nigel Bradham, a star linebacker at Florida State, fall to the fourth round in April's NFL draft, Joyner said his eyes were opened about the fleeting value of expectations and the fruitlessness of continually trying to make an impression with every play.

"That stuff will humble you, man," Joyner said. "People talking about, 'This kid's expected to do this, may be an NFL star' -- that kind of stuff can be tough. But when you put your foot down on the ground and take care of yourself, the rest of it takes care of itself."

Haulstead's long recovery from that vicious hit in a scrimmage more than a year ago has reinforced that lesson, even if Joyner occasionally lapses into old habits from time to time.

Still, this is the new Lamarcus Joyner, refined in technique, educated in the system, in control of the weapon that has made him one of the most feared and respected players in the ACC.

There is no less ferocity burning within him, but now he understands when it should be deployed.

"I definitely evolved, but it took time," Joyner said. "But after being there mentally, after a year of being disciplined and being coached the right way, I understand I really can control it."