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Crawford Drama Not Surprising

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

By Dave Glenn and staff, ACC Sports Journal
October 14, 2002 COLLEGE PARK — There were plenty of warning signs with Maryland tailback Jason Crawford. First he couldn't figure out where he wanted to attend college, and he gained some level of infamy among coaches and fans by reneging on at least two commitments during the recruiting process. Then he didn't meet NCAA standards for freshman eligibility. When he finally did show up in College Park last summer, with a possible starting job on the line, he was out of shape. Through it all, it seemed, he left a trail of frustration and disappointment in his wake. This fall, he's at it again.

Projected as a possible starter in August after various injuries to All-ACC tailback Bruce Perry, Crawford gradually worked his way down the depth chart — read: wrong direction — through the first half of the season. Thanks to poor conditioning habits off the field, mediocre results on the field, a minor injury problem and some entertaining exchanges with the media, he also managed to firmly entrench himself in the doghouse of Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen.

“Every team has a few players who drive their coaches crazy, and most of them don't last very long,” one Maryland source said. “(Crawford) isn't out of chances yet, I don't think, but I can't imagine he has many more. The Fridge can be patient about some things, but I don't think this situation falls into that category.”

By mid-September, with Perry still on the sidelines and the Maryland offense in desperate need of a lift, Crawford had fallen behind little-used senior Chris Downs and redshirt freshman Mario Merrills on the depth chart. By early October, Crawford had dropped to fourth, after true freshman Josh Allen came out of a redshirt season and emerged as the starter.

Crawford had played in only two games, in the season opener against Notre Dame and game two versus Akron, compiling 43 yards on 16 carries. Meanwhile, the coaching staff turned at various times to Downs (65 carries, 388 yards, six TDs, 6.0 yards per carry), Allen (40-265-5-6.6) and Merrills (36-145-0-4.0), with varying degrees of success.

By mid-October, Crawford was averaging just 2.7 yards per carry and hadn't seen the field in a month. The only official explanation was that a sore hip flexor, which also bothered him in the preseason, was slowing his progress. But he was still practicing, splitting time between tailback and fullback (now there's a message), and everyone knew the party line left something significant out of the equation.

“You'd have to be blind not to see the opportunity (Crawford) had going into this season,” the Maryland source said. “When (Perry) went down, there was no more whining about playing time. Opportunity knocked. Some guys answered the door. Some didn't. (Crawford) obviously didn't. He's one of those kids who leaves you scratching your head sometimes. He has plenty of talent.”

Unfortunately, he also has a big mouth. Prior to Maryland's home opener against Akron, Crawford did an interview with several members of the local media that was shocking in its candor. First, Crawford second-guessed the play-calling of Friedgen and offensive coordinator Charlie Taaffe against Notre Dame in the Kickoff Classic. Crawford clearly was miffed that he and Merrills combined for only 14 carries (and 22 yards) in a 22-0 loss to the Fighting Irish on national television.

“I don't know if they lost confidence in us or what,” Crawford said. “I don't know whether they think we can't do certain things. I had 10 carries and Mario had like five. That's 15 carries the entire game? They need to give us an opportunity.”

Crawford then revealed that he took his grievance to running backs coach Mike Locksley, asking that he pass it up the ladder to Friedgen.

“I told them, ëLook, we don't have D-I scholarships for no reason,'” Crawford said.

By this point, beat reporters from the Washington Post, Washington Times, Baltimore Sun and Diamondback (school newspaper) were like kids in a candy store. It's not often that writers get a player wildly shooting his mouth off about every topic under the sun.

When Crawford was asked whether he and Merrills would fare better against Akron, he produced another juicy quote. The precocious sophomore noted that he saw film of the Zips' 57-21 loss to Iowa, in which the Hawkeyes rolled up 379 yards rushing.

“I can't wait,” Crawford said. “I don't know what y'all seen, but they look terrible. Their defensive line looks real weak.”

For those who don't know, a reminder: It has become standard practice for major Division I athletic departments to coach players in high-profile sports (usually football and men's basketball) on how to handle themselves in interview situations. Among the most important premises drilled into athletes' heads are (1) never question the coaching staff, (2) never criticize an opponent and (3) be very careful if you ever choose to speak your mind.

Obviously, Crawford missed all three points. In an age when most college athletes give bland, one-sentence answers, it's refreshing to hear a player say what he really feels. It's called answering a question directly, honestly and truthfully. It doesn't happen often enough. But Crawford obviously missed (or ignored) the sports information department primer on how to be short, evasive and politically correct, and he ended up paying for it.

One can only imagine the anger that boiled up in Friedgen when he was apprised of Crawford's comments. His immediate reaction was to pull beat writers aside and ask if they planned to use “that stuff.” Told in clear terms that Crawford's quotes would be appearing in print, Friedgen reportedly got very angry and read some writers the riot act.

Probably realizing he had a losing argument — coaches always ask for fairness from writers, so asking them to neglect their responsibilities as journalists is grossly hypocritical — Friedgen reportedly turned his wrath on the sports information department, basically asking how Crawford was allowed to sound off so much without interruption. The upshot was that a member of the sports information staff now is present and within earshot every time a Maryland football player talks to the media.

It wasn't mere coincidence that Crawford suddenly was demoted from starter to third on the depth chart one day after his infamous interview session. Friedgen swore it was because Downs had a better week of practice, but that didn't explain why Crawford also dropped behind Merrills and received the least amount of carries among the three against Akron.

When Friedgen later took Allen out of his redshirt year and sent Crawford to work with the fullbacks, it became clear that the entire drama constituted a very strong message: This coach isn't going to put up with any insubordination, from anyone. Speaking of which, Friedgen's response to Locksley, when told Crawford and Merrills wanted the ball more, reportedly went something like this: “Tell them to start running north-south instead of east-west.” Clearly, a coach with 30 years of experience was not going to stand for being questioned by an immature sophomore who already has been labeled by some in the program as a head case and a disappointment.

Crawford, a 6-2, 220-pounder, was a SuperPrep All-American as a senior at Parkdale High in the Prince George's County area of Maryland. He was touted as a power back with breakaway speed, perhaps another La-Mont Jordan waiting in the wings.

Crawford's recruitment was another saga, pitting his father against his mother. J.D. Gross played at Maryland in the early 1980s under Bobby Ross and wanted his son to follow in his footsteps. Saone Crawford, who does not get along with Gross, wanted her son to go anywhere but Maryland. Following a big family pow-wow in which both sides urged Jason to choose the school where he felt most comfortable, Crawford committed to Maryland.

However, on national signing day in February 2000, Crawford unexpectedly faxed a letter of intent to North Carolina instead. Then-Maryland head coach Ron Vanderlinden fumed over the about-face, saying that Crawford had “blindsided” the Terps and decrying the “dishonesty” of some of those involved in the decision-making process. It all became a moot point when Crawford didn't qualify. He attended Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy during the 2000-01 school year.

Crawford's recruitment took another twist at Fork Union, when he started showing interest in Maryland, Indiana and Ohio State while publicly stating he was still committed to North Carolina. Around December, insiders received word that Crawford had made another change of heart and this time was going to sign with Maryland. He reportedly gave a commitment that had to be kept secret, since Fork Union coaches accepted him at the request of UNC and didn't want to play any part in a reversal.

Almost two years later, Crawford continues to keep everyone guessing, and that's bad news for a Maryland team that really could use a quality tailback right about
now.