By Heather A. Dinich
August 30, 2006
COLLEGE PARK - After spending much of his career at Maryland working to improve the fan base, fundraising and facilities, coach Ralph Friedgen decided to simplify his job this fall.
"Now it's time," he said, "to go back to winning football games."
It might not be that easy.
The Terps are faced with the challenge of turning around back-to-back 5-6 seasons, and they have to do it without their three leading receivers from last year, a seemingly superhuman tight end, and the former leading tackler in the ACC. There are two new coordinators on the sidelines, and the conference schedule is unforgiving, but those within the program insist that things are moving in the right direction.
If nothing else, the goal is clear.
"I think we have to get back to a bowl game this year," said Friedgen, who enters his sixth season with a 41-20 record. "I don't think there's any question of that. I think it's very important we get back to our winning ways. A lot of recruits are looking to see how we do. They all have short memories, as well as you. But that's human nature. I understand that.
"I think our team is talented. In some regards, we're a little bit like our first year, in it's a confidence factor. We have kids who haven't been to bowl games."
Whether or not the Terps will experience one this fall will depend heavily on how fast the young receivers can learn Friedgen's complicated offense.
Last year's receiving leaders - wideouts Jo Jo Walker, Derrick Fenner and Danny Melendez, and tight end Vernon Davis - accounted for 86 percent of the team's 2,740 receiving yards. Those players all have moved on.
Senior Drew Weatherly is the only receiver who has any significant college experience, and he has taken six freshmen under his wing, two of them directly out of high school. The rest are sophomores. Weatherly said he gave his cell phone number to his teammates and told them to call if they had any questions.
"I've been through the program going on four years now, so I know the ropes of the game and know what it takes to get through," said Weatherly, who played in nine games last season and caught 10 balls for 83 yards and one touchdown. "Yes, I have taken on a leadership role to try and show them how to get things done."
Nearly 200 pass patterns - with about 15 variations on each - comprise Friedgen's passing game, and he has made it clear that he wants to get creative this season. The players said they put in extra hours trying to learn everything, and they have been quizzing themselves, each other, and holding additional meetings with the quarterbacks.
"I still might know half of those right now," sophomore wideout Danny Oquendo said. "It's more than studying it, too. You have to go out there and take reps every day, take mental reps."
The receivers aren't the only ones who have been cramming for this season. Wide receivers coach Bryan Bossard said he is in his second year of the very difficult learning curve.
"I try to teach them how I learned the offense myself," Bossard said. "I'm trying to figure out, are there easier ways, are there better ways, are there things I can say a little better to make it stick to them more? It was challenging. I've been in the wishbone, the Wing T, the spread. ... This one is challenging because there's no offensive crutch. A lot of offenses, you have a crutch. I feel very good about where I'm at right now."
If the passing game is where it needs to be, it will help Maryland open up its running game, where the Terps appear to have the most depth. Two-back sets seem likely, considering that Lance Ball (the team's leading rusher from 2005) returns, and one-time star Josh Allen is hoping to make a comeback after missing last season with a torn ACL. Senior J.P. Humber also has made significant strides, but it was the highly touted little brother of Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis who recently impressed Friedgen.
Sophomore Keon Lattimore was usually a third-string tailback last season, and he suffered a setback when he injured his shoulder. He was kept out of spring drills to rehabilitate his shoulder, but Friedgen said Lattimore has been playing with more confidence and making big plays.
"He's really caught my eye," Friedgen said. "It just seems every time I look up and a guy's making a long run, it's Keon. We're going to probably play all of them."
It wouldn't be a surprise, either, if Friedgen made use of more than one quarterback. Senior Sam Hollenbach is the clear-cut starter, but Friedgen said recently he has been impressed enough with Jordan Steffy that he wouldn't hesitate to insert him into a game.
"I'd like to play both in the fact it would provide depth like any other position," Friedgen said. "I think that's a good position, the fact we've got two guys. That's one of the things I feel pretty good about. It's not like we don't have anybody who's ever been in a game before."
Early indications are that if the offensive line can remain intact, and the receivers are running precise routes, Hollenbach should be able to improve upon last year's 15 interceptions.
"He has a whole lot better knowledge and awareness of the offense," Friedgen said. "I also thought he was much better at reading coverages. I work very hard with him at that."
The quarterbacks have an accuracy drill where they throw the football at a net that has different shapes on it. This spring, Friedgen made them read a safety before they threw.
"They couldn't hit the net for two weeks," Friedgen said. "I was getting a little depressed. But that's what they're going to have to do in a game, see that guy and find another guy and make the throw. When they start seeing that, they have a better anticipation of what's going to happen. I did see that in Sam this year."
One of the biggest differences with Maryland's offense will be on the sidelines, where Friedgen will be calling his own plays and doubling as the Terps' coordinator. He installed nearly 90 percent of the offense in the first five days of fall camp.
"He's using the entire playbook," Hollenbach said. "I think he would tell you we've been very predictable offensively in the past. That's not any blame on (former coordinator Charlie) Taaffe, or any of the top coaches, but that's something he's wanted to break away from.
"It's a matter of learning concepts. I just had to recently go back and brush up on 15 or 16 different formations we hadn't used before, different things now we're probably going to try and get involved, or different personnel. It's all in the playbook. It's all there."
The entire Maryland playbook was downloaded during the offseason into a new $240,000 gizmo Friedgen purchased to help his players learn the offense. The Pro Simulator, which some of the players have described as an amazingly interactive version of the famous John Madden NFL video game, has come in handy to a receiving unit in which the average age is 19.
While the receivers have been making progress, Maryland's offensive line took several steps back at the beginning of fall practice.
Before practice even began, the athletic department announced that tackle Jared Gaither and guard Jaimie Thomas were suspended for the first two weeks for a violation of team rules. They rejoined the team on Aug. 21. What complicated matters, though, were injuries. Guard Donnie Woods had a strained hamstring and practiced sparingly. Guard Andrew Crummey and tackle Scott Burley also were out with injuries.
Injury concerns had Friedgen leery of holding his first of three scrimmages before the Sept. 2 season opener against William & Mary.
Maryland's home schedule includes games against Florida State and Miami. Last year's matchup against the Seminoles, in which the Terps blew a 21-14 halftime lead, is one of three that continues to haunt the players and coaches. Against Clemson, they led 24-14 heading into the fourth quarter. They trailed 7-6 to West Virginia before allowing 24 points in the fourth quarter. Maryland will travel to Morgantown for its toughest non-ACC matchup this fall.
"This year, being there and having that lead and losing it ...," senior cornerback Josh Wilson said. "When we get in that same situation, we'll remember that time and how bad we felt after it."
The biggest question on defense is how to compensate for the loss of star linebacker D'Qwell Jackson, who led the ACC last season with 137 tackles. Junior Wesley Jefferson has earned the confidence of his teammates that he can step into that role. Jefferson played in all 11 games last season and started two.
"D'Qwell's a great player, you can't really replace him, but I really believe Wes is just as good as D'Qwell - and different," said senior tackle Conrad Bolston, who was a freshman when the Terps went to the Gator Bowl. "They have a different style of play, but if I had to pick a person to step in after D'Qwell, you couldn't pick a better person."
Bolston is one of the few players on the Terps' roster who has played in a bowl game. Friedgen has been working to change that. Even on his vacation, he spent five hours each morning working on football.
He also used to host an on-campus breakfast every Friday before home games. The Terps have seven home games this fall, but Friedgen will attend only three breakfasts.
"I just can't do everything," he said. "I'm going to cut back and focus more on winning football games. I'm out of the fundraising business."
MARYLAND INSIDER: UPDATES/ANALYSIS
- Robert Armstrong's career at Maryland proved to be one of on-going problems and unfulfilled potential.
It seemed the Terrapins had pulled quite a coup when they signed Armstrong out of Fork Union Military Academy in 2003. He originally had signed with Virginia, after also being recruited by the likes of Virginia Tech, Ohio State and Michigan State. Poor grades forced Armstrong to attend prep school, and perhaps that should have been an early warning sign. Academic woes would plague the defensive tackle throughout his career.
Armstrong appeared in 12 games as a true freshman, seeing more playing time as the season progressed. He showed the potential to be a space-eating run-stopper for three more years. Nagging injuries prevented him from progressing as much as hoped in his sophomore season. However, he still saw action in 11 games (two starts) and was credited with 16 tackles.
A mysterious back injury, which began to manifest itself in 2004, sidelined Armstrong for all of last season. Some thought the youngster's troubles in the preseason were mainly the result of poor conditioning. Armstrong used a redshirt year and thus should have been a junior this fall. However, the academic bug came back to bite him, and he was declared ineligible on the eve of preseason camp. An NCAA appeal was denied, and his Maryland career may be over.
- Recruiting always has been a very unscientific business. Sometimes, unheralded prospects turn out better than prep All-Americans.
Baltimore native Laquan Williams was literally a last-minute addition to Maryland's 2006 class. Ralph Friedgen had been holding a scholarship for a high-profile prospect, and when that player chose another school it opened a spot for Williams. Listed as an athlete from Baltimore Poly, Williams has settled in at safety and quickly moved to No. 3 on the depth chart. He also is getting a long look on special teams and could be the only true freshman to play in the opener.
Williams, known more as a basketball player at Poly, has a remarkable 42-inch vertical leap and can run the 40-yard dash in under 4.5 seconds. Thanks to the departures of Navy transfer Hunter Reddick (grades) and a preseason injury to Jamari McCollough (torn ACL), Williams has been thrust into the mix. He was headed to Division I-AA James Madison before the Terps offered a grant.
"Laquan is running to the football, and he's always around the ball," secondary coach Tim Banks said. "He's doing the things that come naturally to him, like running and hitting. Right now it's the reads that he needs to understand and pick up on."
- Maryland has had success with a steady stream of players who transferred from lower-level schools. Defensive backs Chad Scott and Madieu Williams became All-ACC selections and NFL draft picks after transferring from Division I-AA Towson. Milton Harris became a starter in the secondary after transferring from I-AA Delaware State.
Inside linebacker Moises Fokou is the latest player to follow in that tradition, although he made the leap all the way from Division III. Denied admission to Maryland out of nearby Bullis School, Fokou played at Frostburg State and ranked second on the team with 70 tackles as a true freshman. Convinced he could perform at a higher level, the 6-1, 216-pounder transferred to College Park and wowed the coaches while working with the scout team during the mandatory sit-out year.
Fokou was the surprise of spring camp this year, showing tremendous instincts and toughness while forcing his way onto the depth chart. He's the second-fastest linebacker on the team, has an amazing nose for the ball and is pushing starter Erin Henderson at weak-side linebacker.
"Moises has a great motor and makes a lot of big hits," defensive coordinator Chris Cosh said. "He has tremendous quickness and a great first step, which is why he's usually first to arrive at the ball."
THE BIG PICTURE
After two straight disappointing seasons, Maryland needs to post a winning record and get to a bowl game. Ralph Friedgen is the first to admit that, and he has taken personal responsibility for spearheading a turnaround. The coach has taken a hands-on approach and tried to get more involved with every aspect of the program. Most notably, the Fridge has become his own offensive coordinator. He insists that intangibles, more than talent, are what held back the Terps in 2004 and 2005. Lingering like a dark cloud over College Park is the fact that Friedgen has yet to prove he can win with his own recruits.
The PooP Most fans were surprised when Maryland announced in late February that offensive coordinator Charlie Taaffe had resigned. It seemed strange that Taaffe would step down without having another job lined up, and the timing (weeks before spring practice) was odd, too. Sources within the program later revealed that Taaffe was pushed out, largely at the urging of athletic director Debbie Yow. Her main point: Friedgen was the one with the reputation as an offensive genius, so wouldn't it make sense for him to call his own plays? The Fridge spent considerable time during the offseason revamping the offense, and he said he's going to install more of his total package this season.
Done For Me Lately
Year ACC Overall Postseason
1996 3-5 (6) 5-6 None
1997 1-7 (8) 2-9 None
1998 1-7 (8) 3-8 None
1999 2-6 (8) 5-6 None
2000 3-5 (6) 5-6 None
2001 7-1 (1) 10-2 Orange Bowl (L)
2002 6-2 (2) 11-3 Peach Bowl (W)
2003 6-2 (2) 10-3 Gator Bowl (W)
2004 3-5 (8) 5-6 None
2005 3-5 (4A) 5-6 None
ACC: 35-45 (.438)
Overall: 61-55 (.526)
Building Blocks One major aspect of Friedgen's plan to improve the offense involves a return to smash-mouth football. Maryland has two of the ACC's biggest offensive tackles in savvy senior Stephon Heyer and emerging sophomore Jared Gaither. Donnie Woods and Andrew Crummey are returning starters at guard. Fullback Tim Cesa started four games last season and is playing the best football of his career. Tailback Lance Ball had a break-out season in 2005, rushing for 903 yards and earning second-team All-ACC honors.
Coming On Strong Maryland's defensive coaches are quietly optimistic that the line could be a major strength this season. Tackle Conrad Bolston is a steady three-year starter who seems poised to make the leap to all-conference status. Nose guard Dre Moore enjoyed a strong preseason and should emerge in his second season as a starter. Line coach Dave Sollazzo thinks end Jeremy Navarre has the potential to be special. After being thrown to the wolves as a true freshman, Navarre has returned for his second year looking like a totally different player. He was virtually unblockable and constantly made plays during August camp.
Cause For Concern? Maryland's offense will not take a quantum leap forward if the passing game doesn't get better. While QB Sam Hollenbach seems improved, the receiving corps is extremely young and inexperienced. The Terps lost their top four receivers, including dynamic tight end Vernon Davis. Andrew Weatherly, a career underachiever, is the most experienced wideout. The rest are sophomores and freshmen. Friedgen was not happy with the number of dropped passes he saw in preseason scrimmages.
The Whole Truth "I've had 18 straight years of winning, and I kind of got spoiled, I guess. When I look at our team, I don't see us that far away. We've got to get things corrected, and I think this team has a hunger that they want to be good. Personally, I've worked hard, if not harder, than I ever have in my life to get this program back where we need to be."
- Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen
Chart By: The Maryland Insider