STORRS - Hergy Mayala had just made a terrific play. One perhaps worth celebrating a little.
The UConn football team’s senior wide receiver, during a hotly contested 11-on-11 drill as part of a Tuesday morning practice, made a leaping touchdown catch in the back of the end zone between a slew of defenders.
But even as his offensive teammates were whooping it up a bit and his defensive teammates were cursing their luck, Mayala stoically jogged with the ball back to the sidelines and casually tossed it to a UConn staffer.
It was quite a change from the final touchdown Mayala scored last season, the play that ended up being UConn’s last offensive snap of the season. Mayala caught a touchdown pass in the last second of the Huskies’ season finale against Cincinnati on Nov. 25, a score that appeared would tie the game and send it to overtime.
But Mayala was flagged for excessive celebration following his score and, after the penalty was marked off, UConn kicker Michael Tarbutt missed the game-tying extra point and UConn walked off the field at Nippert Stadium with a 22-21 loss and a second straight 3-9 season.
This season, even if it’s spring practice on a weekday morning, Mayala is likely to act differently when he scores for the Huskies.
“I would hope so. He’s an intelligent young man, I would hope that he learned from that experience,” UConn coach Randy Edsall said after Tuesday’s workout. “Yeah, you can get excited but celebrate with your teammates. That’s the norm. That’s the expectation.”
Despite that infractoin in the finale, Mayala, a 6-foot-2, 204-pound senior from Montreal, was UConn’s best player in 2017. He caught 43 passes for 615 yards and seven touchdowns.
But he says it’s not just about the numbers this season.
“After what happened last year, I realize I have to be a better leader. I can’t cost my team wins. We really work hard for those,” Mayala said. “So whenever I get in the end zone I’m going to act like I’ve been there before.”
Mayala is something of two minds when asked to look back at that fateful call against the Bearcats. At first, he seems to hold a slight grudge against the official who called the penalty, but then changes his mind and takes the blame.
“I feel like at that point in the game the official maybe singled me out. But he did his job. It was a great call. I just have to learn from it,” Mayala said.
There is no changing the outcome at this point, Mayala knows, and he seems to have moved on. The UConn coaches have certainly seen a renewed focus from their offensive star this offseason.
“He’s been very focused and very diligent in terms of working to try and get better,” Edsall said.
Like all of the Huskies, Mayala is adjusting to a new offense. John Dunn, the Huskies’ new offensive coordinator, is busy many days this spring installing his system of attack.
Mayala said the approach is not too difficult to understand, and could give him more opportunities to make plays in 2018.
“It’s a lot the same. I do get moved around a lot more than I used to, which allows me to see different coverages and get different matchups,” Mayala said.
Of course, Mayala also sometimes gets frustrated if he isn’t allowed to make as many plays as he believes are possible.
“He’s a competitor. He wants the ball thrown his way,” Edsall said. “We have to remind him this is spring practice. We’re not game planning right now. So there might be days we come out here and he might not get the ball.”
Seemingly a team player in many respects, Mayala says he understands that premise. And to that end, he says he’s working hard on things this spring that don’t involve catching the ball. He has tried to improve his route running, which could draw coverage away and allow his teammates to catch passes, and he has also had a renewed focus on blocking.
“That’s something I really focused on in the offseason,” Mayala said of blocking. “Last year, I kind of slacked as compared to my sophomore year.”
He’s also tried to concentrate on being a mentor to some of the Huskies’ younger receivers, particularly former quarterback Donovan Williams.
Mayala’s first lesson?
Don’t get penalized for celebrating touchdowns.