You watch Joel Bradford and you wonder how he does it.
Take a play in last Thursday's practice: The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga senior wide receiver ran a deep route down the right hash mark. For the final 15 yards or so he was sandwiched between defensive backs Chris Lewis-Harris and Chaz Moore.
They were all over him, playing good defense even if they didn't have their heads turned to find the ball.
As Bradford crossed the goal line, B.J. Coleman's pass was a few feet away. Bradford turned to his left and deftly stuck his hands out just inches from Lewis-Harris' body, never breaking stride as caught the ball.
When asked about the play the next day, Bradford and Coleman looked at each other and smiled.
"[Lewis-Harris] is pretty good at getting in your face and not letting you get the ball ... so I was just thinking, I'm going to stick my hands out at the last second, just kind of run and act like nothing's happening and then right when the ball's coming by his ears just reach out and catch it," said Bradford, a third-team All-American last season.
"It's like a work of art," Coleman said, nodding at his longtime teammate's explanation.
It was a remarkable play -- on a pass that probably wouldn't be thrown if it wasn't Coleman-to-Bradford -- that looked routine. Bradford has done that a lot since beginning last season as a redshirt junior with zero career catches and finishing 2010 with 81 for a school-record 1,284 yards.
"I knew he was a talented receiver, I knew I was glad to have him, I knew he fit in well with what we do offensively, I knew him and B.J. were on the same page," offensive coordinator Marcus Satterfield said. "But I never envisioned him catching 80-something balls."
After their stellar careers together at McCallie, Coleman went off to Tennessee as a four-star recruit and Bradford only got a partial scholarship to play at UTC. They both redshirted in 2007 and hardly saw the field in 2008.
Then Coleman transferred to UTC, where he'd have to wait a year to have Bradford as his go-to guy. That's because Satterfield allowed Bradford to be moved to defensive back for the 2009 season. With Bradford on defense, Blue Cooper was the standout wideout with 84 receptions.
"Thank goodness [coach Russ Huesman] gave me a reprieve and gave him back to me," Satterfield of Bradford's return to the offense after the 2009 season.
At 6-feet tall, 160-something pounds, Bradford looks like an athlete, but an All-American football player? Yet again and again he finds a soft spot in the defense or maneuvers his body just enough to bring in another Coleman pass. And he does it all in that smooth style of his that makes it look like he isn't moving very fast or trying too hard.
Even after Bradford got off to an impressive start last season -- six catches versus Appalachian State, five at Jacksonville State and 11 for a school-record 254 yards against Eastern Kentucky -- Satterfield wasn't specifically creating ways to get Bradford the ball.
That changed as the season progressed.
Bradford's best game, and his best display of route running, which he said "is a passion of mine," came in UTC's 36-28 come-from-behind win at Furman.
That afternoon he caught 15 passes for 274 yards, breaking his month-old record, and more than half of those receptions came on the same play that resulted in Bradford catching the ball near the sidelines about 10 yards downfield.
"I'd say that out of the eight times we ran it that game, five of them looked totally different," Satterfield said. "Five of them looked like five different plays [because of the route Bradford ran]. He understands the defenses extremely well, he understands coverages, leverages and how to attack people, and he's able to switch it up.
"He's going to end up in the place he needs to be, but he may change up the way it looks to get there -- and it doesn't freak B.J. out, he trusts that Joel's going to get there."
Bradford said he isn't interested in topping last season's receiving numbers. All that matters in his final season is the win total.
"Right now, I just want to win games. I want to beat App State, I've never beaten them. I want to beat Elon, never beaten them," he said. "Getting 1,200 yards or beating records or anything like that, I couldn't care less."