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Fridge Succeeding Without Top Talent

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

October 28, 2002 COLLEGE PARK — An interesting dynamic has developed within the Maryland football program over the past two years. Coach Ralph Friedgen has created a consistent winner out of the solid but unspectacular talent left behind by predecessor Ron Vanderlinden. Vandy recruited better talent than the gurus thought at the time, but he generally lived off underrated players and sleepers. His staff relied on personal evaluation to uncover hidden gems; some have worked out, and others have been busts. Friedgen has made it clear that Maryland needs to upgrade its talent level in all areas (size, speed, skills) and at every position in order to become a serious contender for ACC championships and major bowl berths.

That said, Friedgen has done quite well with the talent on hand. Entering November, Maryland appeared well on its way to a second straight winning season, and the Terps were an upset away from challenging for a second straight ACC crown. Remember what happened last season? Maryland lost to Florida State but knocked off N.C. State. When the Wolfpack upset the Seminoles, it handed the Terps their first conference title since 1985. It's not out of the realm of possibility that the same scenario could unfold this season.

The primary point is that Friedgen is in the process of putting together two extremely successful seasons (especially by Maryland standards) while using numerous players who are a notch or two below the kinds of prospects he hopes to sign in the future. Vanderlinden's last two seasons — 5-6 in both 1999 and 2000 — reflected the average talent on hand. It's a credit to good coaching (great coordinators, sound systems, wise use of personnel, superb in-game strategy and adjustments) that Maryland is an impressive 16-4 over the past two seasons with virtually the same type of players. Friedgen and his staff have better utilized the available talent while also doing a slightly better job of developing it.

Great Examples: Downs, Roundtree

Tailback Chris Downs and defensive end Durrand Roundtree are perfect examples.

Vanderlinden's staff deserves credit for seeing ACC potential in a pair of players no other Division I-A programs wanted. Friedgen's staff gets credit for bringing out the talent the previous regime saw in Downs and Roundtree, for transforming them into productive players.

Downs rushed for more than 4,000 yards and scored 54 touchdowns during a tremendous career at Malvern Prep outside Philadelphia. He was named the Inter-Academic player of the decade by the Philadelphia Daily News. Yet few Division I-A programs were interested in Downs, because he was only 5-8 and had shaky grades. Vanderlinden, as he did often, looked past the below-average size and put more stock in production.

Yet Downs disappointed the Terps by failing to qualify, necessitating a junior college stint at Valley Forge Military Academy. Not many programs would have signed such a questionable prospect twice, but Vanderlinden stuck by Downs and gave him a scholarship again in 2000. Friedgen showed up in 2001 and found a redshirt junior who still wasn't ready to play. Not only was Downs undersized, but he was a “dancer” who ran north-south too much and also had a fumbling problem.

Friedgen could have simply written Downs off and buried him on the depth chart behind his own tailback recruits — Jason Crawford, Mario Merrills and Josh Allen. Instead, the staff continued to work with Downs, and gradually he improved. Maryland's tailback situation was in disarray earlier this season when Friedgen announced — out of the blue — that Downs would be the starter. Returning starter Bruce Perry was injured, Allen was slated to redshirt and Merrills and Crawford were struggling at the time.

“I've been watching this kid in practice and he's been getting better and better,” Friedgen said. “He's doing all the little things we're looking for.”

While many figured the sudden decision to start Downs was a ploy to motivate Crawford and Merrills, Friedgen honestly felt the well-traveled senior was the team's best option. The coach's faith was rewarded when Downs rushed for 212 yards and three touchdowns against Georgia Tech. The little man accelerated through holes and ran with authority, breaking several tackles while accounting for almost all of the team's 76 yards on a decisive touchdown drive early in the second half.

“I feel good for Chris. Here's a guy who could have gotten an attitude, could have given up, could have said, ‘I'm just not good enough.' But he didn't,” Friedgen said. “He came to work every day, just did his best every day. All of a sudden, it started to fall into place. He used to make all kinds of mistakes, had trouble learning things. He had trouble catching the ball. He fumbled a lot. He has worked on his weaknesses and turned himself into a very good running back at a time when we really needed one.”

It's been a similar story with Roundtree, who rates as one of Vanderlinden's biggest recruiting gambles. He played for a Lansdowne High program that was among the worst in Maryland and was the definition of raw in terms of football ability. Basically, Vanderlinden took a chance on Roundtree because he was big and ran well.

Unfortunately, Roundtree did next-to-nothing for three years. Friedgen arrived to find a muscular defensive end who looked like Tarzan and played like Jane. Roundtree has the highest strength index (831) in Maryland history, runs the 40-yard dash in 4.63 seconds and boasts a 35-inch vertical leap.

New defensive line coach Dave Sollazzo, a taskmaster, has taught Roundtree how to use his impressive physical skills. Roundtree steadily has developed to the point where he played the best game of his career against Georgia Tech.

“Durrand was everywhere,” Friedgen said. “He did a great job on containment and put a lot of pressure on the quarterback. He was credited with a lot of hurries and knockdowns.”

Feldheim, Harrison, Smith Awaken

Similar stories abound in the Maryland program these days.

Sollazzo recognized that C.J. Feldheim wasn't athletic enough to play defensive end, so he switched him to tackle. A bulked-up Feldheim has been a key component of the defense this fall, replacing Charles Hill (Houston Texans) at the all-important nose tackle position and doing the dirty work that frees up middle linebacker E.J. Henderson to make plays. Feldheim is not a great talent, but he plays hard and knows his assignments.

Friedgen realized quarterback Latrez Harrison would never fully grasp the team's intricate offense and moved him to wide receiver, where his athleticism could be better utilized. Harrison is now Maryland's most dangerous receiver in terms of being able to run after the catch. He had a huge outing against Duke, with three receptions for 103 yards, and showed his development on a 69-yard touchdown bomb. Harrison was supposed to run a corner route, but he recognized that safety Alex Green was biting up. Harrison took it upon himself to run a post pattern instead and waved his hand wildly to catch the attention of quarterback Scott McBrien after getting behind the coverage.

Then there's Andrew Smith, a junior strong safety who was deep in the doghouse after several run-ins with the law. After being acquitted of assault and robbery charges, Smith returned to the team and promptly was buried on the depth chart. At least one coach questioned whether Smith was capable of playing at the ACC level. Smith has been forced to play out of necessity this season, after an injury to nickel back Tyrone Stewart left no one else. Surprisingly, Smith has been up to the challenge, making several big plays on blitzes and coming up with an interception versus Duke.

Next Project: Interior Linemen

Now Friedgen will find out if the staff can suddenly make players out of several reserve linemen. If there was one area the Vanderlinden regime failed to properly address, it was the interior line on both sides of the ball. Attrition problems decimated the offensive line. Poor recruiting left the Terps thin on the defensive line as well.

Injuries to Feldheim and Scott Smith forced Friedgen to use senior William Shime extensively against Duke.

Shime, one of Vanderlinden's biggest busts, is a Cameroon native who played just one year of prep football. He originally came to the United States to play basketball. As he did with Roundtree, Vanderlinden gave Shime a scholarship because — in lieu of landing the staff's top defensive line targets on the recruiting trail — he at least looked the part. Once again, it has been a four-year struggle to teach a player how to play the game.

Complicating matters was that, unlike Roundtree, Shime displayed a questionable work ethic. Friedgen was so disappointed at one point last season that he did not allow him to dress for a game, instead forcing him to sit in the stands in street clothes. With Feldheim likely out for a while with a sprained knee and Smith battling a bad back, it appears the Terps have no choice but to play Shime.

It's a similar story on the offensive line, where injuries to tackle Matt Crawford (sprained right knee) and guard Todd Wike (turf toe) have left Maryland perilously thin. A career-long disappointment such as Ed Tyler or a subpar recruit such as Lou Lombardo may have to play.

“We're getting injuries where we don't have a lot of depth and it takes a toll on us,” Friedgen said. “We're getting real thin right now. We're running out of people. Some guys are going to have to step up if we're going to have the season we want to have.”

Everywhere he looks, Friedgen sees glaring holes in the program. The only other option at defensive tackle if Shime doesn't work out is former walk-on Tosin Abari. One of the backup linebackers is walk-on Andrew Henley, and true freshmen have been needed to fill backup spots because there are no veterans capable of doing so.