RALEIGH — It may have been the fastest punt return you'll ever see.
It certainly was for N.C. State special teams coach Jerry Petercuskie.
In Saturday's game against North Carolina, the Pack's T.J. Graham raced back a punt return 87 yards for a touchdown. Graham's burst of speed gave State the lead for the first time in what would be a 29-25 victory and left observers shaking their heads.
"I've timed it from the catch, and it was 9.91 into the end zone," Petercuskie said Tuesday.
That's 9.91 seconds, in full football gear.
"He took it on the numbers and had to get to the boundary, then had to run the 87 yards," Petercuskie said. "That's pretty dang good."
When No. 21 N.C. State (8-3, 5-2 ACC) takes the field Saturday against Maryland in College Park, Md., the Terrapins (7-4, 4-3) will counter with their own special-teams weapon. Maryland's Tony Logan leads the ACC in punt returns and ranks third in the nation with an average of 19.4 yards per return.
The 5-foot-10, 190-pound junior has returned two punts for touchdowns - an 85-yarder against Florida International and an 84-yarder against Duke.
A big day from either returner could carry huge ramifications in a game with big stakes for the Wolfpack. With a win Saturday, State can clinch the ACC's Atlantic Division and claim a spot in the Dec. 4 league football championship game against Virginia Tech.
That's potentially a heavy burden to carry, but with his touchdown last week, Graham may be ready to ease up on the pressure he has placed on himself this season.
"I'm 10 times harder on myself than you can imagine," he said.
Graham set the school record for career kickoff-return yardage during the North Carolina game and has 2,073 yards. The junior from Raleigh, a former track star at Wakefield High, had a 93-yard TD return against Duke last season and a 100-yarder against Boston College in 2008 that went down as the longest in school history.
But before Saturday, he had struggled to shake loose on punt returns, with his longest for 15 yards.
"When a returner doesn't have a good stat, there are 10 other people on the field who have to do something," Petercuskie said. "T.J., in practice, you want him to succeed because he is such a hard worker.
"Every time we run a kickoff return, he takes it 50 yards. Punt return, same thing. So you want to see him have success."
Graham's gallop down the left sideline against the Tar Heels took him right past the N.C. State bench. As he neared the end zone, he took a quick glance to his left, toward the blur of red in his vision in that end of Kenan Stadium.
"I was at full speed by then and knew no one was going to catch me," Graham said, smiling.
Somewhere among the mass of Wolfpackers wearing red was his mom, Ann. He was just hoping she had seen it all.
"My mom has started reading books at games," Graham said with another smile. "She does Sudoku puzzles, just to get her mind off of things.
"I kind of stress her out at times. I'm up and down, and her nerves are up and down."
But Mom quickly sensed something special was unfolding as UNC punted early in the fourth quarter. Graham finally was in the clear for a big one.
"I think I caught her attention," Graham said. "I wanted to make sure she saw me."
She did. And now the Maryland coaches have seen it, too.
Graham wants to be a bigger part of the Pack's passing game as a wide receiver. He's fifth on the Pack in receptions with 22 and has four touchdowns, but six catches and two TDs came in the season-opener against Western Carolina.
"I have personal expectations, and I haven't met those as best I can," he said. "I know I can do more to help this team."
If he does any more, his mother will never finish those puzzles on game day.
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