September 6, 2004 COLLEGE PARK Preseason is good for conditioning, installing/teaching systems, practicing plays and developing a depth chart. But most coaches will admit it usually provides them with very few conclusions about their teams.
Some things such as overall strengths and weaknesses, heart and determination can be judged with certainty only by playing a real game against a good team.
Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen and his staff learned a lot about the 2004 Terrapins from a tough season opener against a very solid Northern Illinois team. The Terps' offense needs a lot of work. The defense has some vulnerability but knows how to stiffen when it counts. The special teams continue to be a remarkable bright spot.
Northern Illinois has built a quality program that can compete with most teams in the major conferences, and Maryland was very fortunate to escape Byrd Stadium with a victory. Had the Huskies not been without standout starting quarterback Josh Haldi (stress fracture) for almost the entire game, it very well could have been a repeat of last season's opening-game upset.
Friedgen's initial three teams at Maryland all made dramatic improvement as the season progressed. This squad shows tremendous potential, but youth and inexperience make the learning curve higher, and the staff will have to work extra hard to maintain the standard that's been set in College Park since 2001.
Statham: Quarterback In Progress
Did someone say Joel Statham ran an option offense in high school? It certainly didn't look that way against Northern Illinois, as the sophomore quarterback executed some of the worst pitches you'll ever see from a Friedgen-coached team. Statham tossed behind slotback Rich Parson on the team's second possession, then committed the same mistake moments later when running the option with tailback Josh Allen.
Blame it on nerves or a lack of game experience, but Statham violated the cardinal rule of playing quarterback failing to take care of the ball. He fumbled four times (losing three), threw an interception and committed an ill-advised intentional grounding penalty that resulted in a 20-yard loss. It could have been worse, as Statham got away with throwing into double coverage several times. Clearly, his reading and decision-making need work.
Yet there were some positives in the performance of Statham, beginning with the fact that he hung tough in the face of early struggles and was undeterred by mistakes. The Georgia native showed off a strong arm and solid athleticism in making several nice throws and breaking a couple of good runs. Friedgen and offensive coordinator Charlie Taaffe have a lot to work with in Statham, who possesses the toughness and skill to become a quality QB once he polishes the rough edges.
Brooks Leads Another Good Line
Maryland looks as if it once again will be able to run the ball effectively. That's been a trademark of Friedgen's successful teams elsewhere in the past, and it's one of the things that has set the Terps apart from most of the ACC over the last three seasons.
Tailbacks Josh Allen and Sammy Maldonado combined for 186 yards rushing against Northern Illinois. Most of the damage came behind the strong left side of tackle Stephon Heyer and guard C.J. Brooks, which figures to be an important pairing for the Terps all season long, especially on key short-yardage plays.
A first-team All-ACC pick in 2003, Brooks is an incredible combination of strength, intelligence, aggressiveness and versatility. A fifth-year senior from Georgia who also has played tackle for the Terps, he's one of the many remaining signees (with Parson, safety Ray Custis, end Kevin Eli, safety Chris Kelley, tackle Lou Lombardo, kicker Nick Novak, center Kyle Schmitt, wideout Steve Suter and several other contributors) from Ron Vanderlinden's 2000 recruiting class. Brooks has started all 38 games of his career in College Park, and last season he committed only one penalty and allowed just one sack in 740 plays from scrimmage.
Brooks, Heyer and Schmitt are all fine blockers in the starting five this fall, while first-year right-side starters Russell Bonham (guard) and Lombardo (tackle) acquitted themselves well against Northern Illinois. Throw in a top-notch blocking tight end in Derek Miller (6-8, 264), and you have a unit that should hold its own against any opponent.
Bonham, a 300-pound redshirt junior who saw scant action in 2002 and 2003, stepped up strong during preseason camp and elevated from No. 3 on the depth chart. He narrowly beat out redshirt freshman Andrew Crummey in the closest camp battle among offensive linemen, making Crummey available as a quality reserve.
Defensive Interior A Big Concern
Maryland is really feeling the effects of Randy Starks' early departure to the NFL, as the current stable of defensive tackles is weak. Highly respected defensive line coach Dave Sollazzo has his work cut out for him, as he tries to get quality production from this bunch.
Sophomore nose tackle Rob Armstrong (6-4, 298) has the most physical ability of this year's tackles, but some question whether he has put forth the effort and energy necessary to reach his potential. It didn't help that Armstrong missed most of the preseason with a back injury and other medical concerns.
Sophomore Conrad Bolston and redshirt freshman Dre Moore are the other recruited tackles who need to step up, but they have yet to show any signs of becoming playmakers. Alarmingly, a trio of former walk-ons junior Justin Duffie, senior Henry Scott and junior Davian Bryan now rank among the best Maryland has at the position.
All of the walk-ons have obvious physical limitations that explain why they weren't recruited by Division I-A programs out of high school. Duffie actually ranks as the team's most experienced tackle, but he's lost a lot of weight and strength while battling Crohn's Disease for a year. He doesn't have the stamina to stay in the game for long stretches.
True freshman Carlos Feliciano has shown some promise and may wind up seeing significant playing time before the season is over. In the meantime, Sollazzo is trying to compensate for a lack of talent by using as many as six players at tackle to keep fresh legs.
Maryland also is thin at strong-side defensive end, since returning starter Kevin Eli has been hampered by a hamstring problem. Redshirt freshman Omarr Savage is not ready for prime time. So dire was the situation that Ricardo Dickerson was switched from fullback to end late in preseason camp and now is running No. 2 at that position. He saw significant action in the opener in place of the ailing Eli.
Jackson Leading Reliable Defense
Junior middle linebacker D'Qwell Jackson has emerged as the defensive leader of the team, both on and off the field. He looked the part of an All-American candidate while making nine tackles and two interceptions versus Northern Illinois.
Equally impressive was the way Jackson took charge on the sideline, after Northern Illinois mounted a long touchdown drive. The Florida native was extremely animated and got in several players' faces as he ripped into the unit.
"I'm trying to be the emotional leader of this defense, the guy who steps up and makes the big play," said Jackson, who returned one of his pickoffs 70 yards.
Junior defensive end Shawne Merriman and senior safety Chris Kelley also played like beasts in the opener. Merriman, who is being given more freedom to rush the passer and wreak havoc in the backfield this fall, recorded a team-high 10 tackles (three for loss) against Northern Illinois. Kelley was second on the team with nine tackles, although he blitzed repeatedly in the fourth quarter, apparently without authorization at times.
"Toward the end Chris was blitzing on every down, and I don't think he should have been, because (defensive coordinator Gary) Blackney was going nuts," Friedgen said. "I think when Chris doesn't know what he's supposed to do he just blitzes, which isn't a healthy situation."
Elsewhere on defense, junior Gerrick Mc-Phearson looked far better than senior Reuben Haigler at cornerback. NIU went after Haigler, who was giving up too much cushion and not challenging for the ball. Opponents are going to pick on Maryland's other corner all season, out of respect for All-ACC selection Domonique Foxworth.