Larry Donnell said he is clear about the NFL's new definition of a catch. The player has to have control of the ball and then become a runner. Simple.
The part the Giants tight end seems to have trouble with is actually becoming a runner. Throughout his brief two-year career, he's developed a reputation for having great hands when it comes to snagging the ball out of the air, not so much when it comes to controlling the ball on his way to the ground after tackles.
Last season, Donnell's first as a major player in the offense, he caught 63 passes but had four lost fumbles, including a crucial one against the Cowboys that thwarted a fourth-quarter comeback. It was clear what he had to work on.
"It ain't been on the ground yet and it won't be on the ground," Donnell said proudly about his newfound ball security this preseason. "That's first and foremost. When I catch it, protect it. I've been doing well and I hope to continue to do well."
Some habits are hard to break.
In Saturday's preseason game, Donnell was credited for a catch only after Tom Coughlin challenged the initial call of an incompletion because the ball popped out as he hit the ground. "It felt like cement," Donnell said of the collision with the turf. Later in the game, he caught a pass near the sideline and was upended on a tackle, one of the yogalike positions the 6-6 Donnell too often finds himself in when confronted by a low-flying defensive back.
"People weren't ripping the ball," Donnell said of his fumbles in 2014. "I was just getting hit in my legs and I was trying to protect myself as I was falling over and the ball went out."
He held on to the ball in Saturday's tumble, but it was an example of the kind of play he and the Giants are trying to avoid this season.
"He's got two options: He can lower his shoulder and run over the man, and that means you're bending your legs, bending your knees, or you can jump over him," tight ends coach Kevin M. Gilbride said this summer about Donnell's unproductive acrobatics. "It's one of the two. No matter what you do, you have to protect the football. The tip of the football can never be here [at the chest], it's not protected, it's not secure, it's not strong. It has to be high."
That's where Donnell has been holding it for several months now, whenever he can, while coaches and teammates surprise him and try to knock it away. It's the Tiki Barber Treatment that Coughlin used to cure the running back's fumbling issues when he first arrived at the Giants more than a decade ago. Now Donnell is a high-and-tighter too.
The Giants see Donnell as a young player still developing. He hasn't played tight end for very long -- he was a quarterback for the first half of his career at Grambling -- and he still needs polishing. But he's also going to be an integral part of their offense this season. Gilbride said he expects Donnell to be "a big-time pass catcher" for the team, especially with all of the defensive attention foisted upon the dangerous wide receivers.
But he's got to secure the football once he has it. Or else, he knows, the Giants will lose faith in him and he won't get it to begin with.
"If you want the ball, hold on to it," he said. "That's about the only thing. If you want the ball, hold on to it. That's what I've come to see. And that's what I've come to do."