The first time Jeff Duckworth popped up on Chris Beatty’s radar screen was when Beatty was coaching wide receivers at Vanderbilt.
Beatty was watching the inaugural Big Ten Conference title game in 2011 when Duckworth made the huge catch that set up the winning touchdown in the University of Wisconsin football team’s 42-39 victory over Michigan State.
Shortly after Beatty was hired as the Badgers’ wide receivers coach last winter, he was watching the Big Ten Network’s replay of the UW-Penn State game from last season. There was Duckworth again, catching a 4-yard touchdown pass from Curt Phillips to tie the score with 18 seconds remaining. The Nittany Lions prevailed in overtime 24-21.
That was about the time Beatty started referring to Duckworth, a fifth-year senior from Cincinnati, as “The Legend.”
“I said, ‘Every time I watch a game, I see you making a catch,’” Beatty said. “It’s just one of those things, seems like wherever there’s a big play, he’s there.”
So, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise last Saturday night at Arizona State, when it happened again. Duckworth came into the game with one catch for 9 yards on the season, but his 51-yard grab on third down late in the fourth quarter set up UW for a potential winning field goal.
Badgers fans know what happened next.
After reaching the Arizona State 13-yard line with 18 seconds left, quarterback Joel Stave took a knee to set up a potential winning field goal that never was attempted because the Pacific-12 officials failed to promptly spot the ball, allowing the clock to run out.
“Joel threw a great ball; he kind of threw me open there because the guy (cornerback Robert Nelson) had excellent coverage,” Duckworth said. “Joel threw it on the back shoulder and I was able to come back and catch it.”
That was only Duckworth’s ninth snap of the game, but once again he was there when the team needed him.
“Duckworth (makes) another huge play, that’s all the kid does for us,” senior tight end Jacob Pedersen said.
For someone who has caught 29 passes for 382 yards and two touchdowns in his career, Duckworth’s ratio of game-turning plays to overall receptions is remarkably high.
Duckworth has accomplished all of this with minimal practice time, due to a lower back injury. He also tweaked a hamstring while making the catch on Saturday.
While his coach might refer to him as “The Legend,” Duckworth’s teammates call him by different nicknames.
“I’ve got some other stuff, ‘Old Vet,’ ‘Old Man,’” Duckworth said. “They call me (Atlanta Falcons tight end) Tony Gonzalez, for sitting out of (preseason) camp, stuff like that.”
Duckworth’s back problems were so severe in the preseason he had limited practice snaps in team situations. The few he did get came toward the end of camp.
Beatty said he would love to use Duckworth more, but the back issues dictate how much he can play.
“He’s a talented guy (but) the health issues kind of limit him a little bit,” Beatty said. “When it comes down to it, we expect him to be out on the field in the big moment.”
Duckworth said his back is feeling better, which has allowed him to practice more, although it still requires daily treatment.
“I’m doing a lot better now,” he said. “It’s moving forward. They’ve been utilizing me during practice, so, hopefully, I can get more reps.”
One of Duckworth’s biggest strengths is his ability to function so well in games with limited practice time.
“To me, he’s like the 6- or 8-year veteran in the NFL that just knows the game, can show up at the end of training camp, that’s kind of how he is,” Beatty said. “He doesn’t need reps, but he can play every (receiver) spot.
“You can tell he wants to coach, because he knows football. He’s been around a lot of coaches so he understands concepts and understands what coaches are trying to get across. He doesn’t need a bunch of reps to get it done, that’s rare, especially for a college-age player. He’s (mature) beyond his years.”
Duckworth wants to go into coaching, preferably at the college level. He has played for three offensive coordinators and three wide receivers coaches, giving him exposure to a variety of styles.
“I just love the game, love the Xs and Os,” Duckworth said. “Obviously, working with young men and stuff, you see how much influence (coaches) have on us.”
Even though Duckworth lacks great speed, he has a good understanding of coverages and an ability to fight for contested balls, like he did on the 36-yard throw from Russell Wilson into double coverage against Michigan State.
“He’s just got a knack. He understands leverage, he understands how to create separation on routes and use his body to his advantage,” Beatty said. “That’s what he did (on Saturday). He gets the defender, through leverage, on his inside and was able to adjust to the ball.
“He’s got late hands, so the defender didn’t have a chance to make a play on it. All of the things you teach, he kind of comes by naturally.”