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Blockers, Corners Among Key Subplots

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

 

October 4, 2004 COLLEGE PARK — Maryland remained a difficult team to read through its 3-1 start. The Terrapins defeated lesser opponents Northern Illinois (23-20), Temple (45-22) and Duke (55-21) but lost in overtime (19-16) on the road to a West Virginia team that was ranked in the top 10 at the time.

The up-and-down play of redshirt sophomore quarterback Joel Statham continues to be the focal point of the Terps' season — depending on the pace of his progress, anything from 9-2 to 5-6 still seems possible — but away from the spotlight, other developments also will impact the team's performance in October and November.

The right side of the offensive line was a question mark coming into the season, for example, and it remained so after four games. Coaches have not been pleased with the play of tackle Lou Lombardo, while young guards Russell Bonham and Andrew Crummey have been inconsistent.

After Maryland failed to punch the ball into the end zone on the goal line against Duke, offensive line coach Tom Brattan yanked starters Bonham and Lombardo and inserted Crummey and Brandon Nixon. A 6-6, 305-pound redshirt freshman, Nixon wound up playing most of the game and performing well. He is certain to continue eating into Lombardo's repetitions and eventually could take over as the starter.

Nixon was a big pickup for Maryland on the recruiting trail, a four-star recruit and one of Pennsylvania's top offensive linemen in the Class of 2003. However, he struggled last year as a true freshman because he was overweight and couldn't grasp the blocking schemes. Nixon arrived in College Park carrying 340 pounds and needed time to get down to a more manageable weight. He is now quicker and possesses better footwork.

Brattan once had a serious heart-to-heart talk with Nixon, basically telling the youngster he would never play at Maryland if he didn't improve his work habits and effort level. Those words stung Nixon, who began catching the eye of the offensive coaches with aggressive, physical play during preseason camp in August.

"I can see the light coming on with Brandon. He's playing hard and starting to understand what he's doing out there," Brattan said. "We've always known Brandon was a real talent. He's very, very strong and moves well for a guy his size."

Meanwhile, there has been a good battle for the starting cornerback spot opposite All-ACC performer Domonique Foxworth. For now, it appears that redshirt junior Gerrick McPhearson has beaten out fifth-year senior Reuben Haigler.

Haigler started the initial two games of 2004, but he got torched several times against Northern Illinois and Temple. McPhearson, one of the five fastest players on the team, started against West Virginia and Duke and played fairly well.

Whoever is playing the boundary corner position for the Terps is going to get picked on, because teams are not going to throw at Foxworth too often. (West Virginia's game-winning touchdown, on which a receiver beat Foxworth on a slant pattern in the end zone, was one major exception.) Opponents clearly have gone after Mc-Phearson, and for the most part he has been up to the challenge.

Finally, Ricardo Dickerson deserves a lot of credit for being flexible and versatile. The 6-1, 254-pound senior, who spent most of the preseason as the team's starting fullback, was switched to defensive end with about a week left in August camp.

Fans may remember that Dickerson played both ways last season, starting at fullback but also serving as a rush end in obvious passing situations. He since has cut out the double duty but now is seeing more significant action on defense.

An injury to starting defensive end Kevin Eli necessitated the last-minute switch of Dickerson, but the unimpressive play of backups Omarr Savage and Jon Condo has kept him there. It cannot be encouraging to the coaching staff that the starting fullback is a better defensive end than players who were recruited to play the latter position.

Friedgen Likes Five-Year Proposal

Friedgen is a big proponent of the five-year eligibility rule the NCAA is seriously considering for football. He said such a rule would eliminate the need for redshirting and makes a lot of sense, since most football players are in school for five years anyway.

Friedgen believes it would be good for true freshmen to play and said he probably would schedule some junior varsity games in order to get the rookies some experience. In an era of lowered (now 85) scholarship limits, redshirting the majority of a recruiting class — as most coaches prefer — dramatically limits the number of players available for games.

"I think it's very tough mentally on the freshmen to practice every day and not get to play in games," Friedgen said. "If this rule was in place, coaches would be more willing to use true freshmen."

Friedgen, who always is kept in the loop on such matters by Maryland athletic director Debbie Yow, has mentioned several times that he's very confident the five-year proposal will pass. As a result, the coach seems more willing to use true freshmen. Six members of the Terps' 2004 signing class already have played, and it wouldn't be surprising if six more get into games before the season is finished.

Quarterback Jordan Steffy, safety Christian Varner, defensive tackle Carlos Feliciano, defensive end Jack Griffin, offensive lineman Scott Burley and safety J.J. Justice all burned their redshirt years during the first four games of this season. Friedgen has said running back Keon Lattimore definitely will play this fall, while H-back Jason Goode also is close to earning time. In addition, linebacker Erin Henderson, safety Richard Taylor and defensive end Trey Covington all have traveled with the team, while cornerback Kevin Barnes and offensive lineman Jaimie Thomas have impressed in practice. Eric Lenz was running No. 2 at outside linebacker in August before suffering a season-ending spine injury.

"I think this freshman class is even better than advertised," Maryland recruiting coordinator James Franklin said. "We have a lot of guys who are really pushing for playing time and are capable of doing the job."

Notre Dame Transfer Fit Needs

Maryland picked up a talented cornerback when Virginia native Isaiah Gardner transferred from Notre Dame in September.

Gardner's arrival came as a complete surprise, as there had been no scuttlebutt that he was in the market for a new school. Notre Dame had kept his disappearance from the team quiet, and he suddenly showed up and began practicing with Maryland on Sept. 12.

Gardner, out of Salem High in Virginia Beach, was unhappy in South Bend and quickly turned up in College Park after the Fighting Irish begrudgingly granted his release. It's a long story, but Gardner originally selected Notre Dame over Maryland and Michigan for family reasons. He learned as a high school senior that the man he had been calling dad was actually his stepfather.

"I was kind of shocked," Gardner told the Terrapin Times. "I met my biological dad (Gary Wilson) for the first time that summer, and he was living in Ohio. And I met a sister that I never knew I had either, so everybody was telling me that Notre Dame was the right choice because I would be close to family."

A 5-10, 197-pounder, Gardner was a standout prep tailback, rushing for 1,068 yards and 18 touchdowns as a senior. His stock soared after he ran the 40 in 4.33 seconds and notched a vertical leap of 39 inches at a Nike Combine. He had not been on campus at Notre Dame for long when he realized he'd made a big mistake.

"My mom kept telling me that moving up there would be good for me," Gardner said. "If I had any problems, I could be close to my family. It didn't take me long to realize that I was up there for all of the wrong reasons. I was up there because everybody else wanted me up there. I was miserable. It wasn't my type of environment. It was cold and they only have two seasons, summer and winter, and I wasn't ready for that."

Gardner did not play in Notre Dame's season opener against BYU, then went AWOL from the program while working the phone lines to find a transfer destination. He since has said he had difficulty getting released from his scholarship.

Maryland had planned to sign seven defensive backs this season and gladly took a player of Gardner's experience and talent over a high school recruit. A likely cornerback for the Terps, Gardner will have three seasons of eligibility remaining after sitting out 2004 under NCAA transfer rules.