By Patrick Stevens
May 2, 2006
COLLEGE PARK -- Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen is determined to do anything he can to help his program return to the postseason after consecutive losing seasons. To prove it, he assumed about as much responsibility as possible as the Terrapins worked through spring practice.
There were the usual head coaching duties -- a wide range of on-field responsibilities, as well as time to spend chatting with recruits, preparing a coaches' clinic and attending booster functions. Yet he also took on the roles former offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Charlie Taaffe held before he resigned in February.
"I'm tired right now," Friedgen said. "I get up at 4:30, I go to bed at 12 o'clock. It's been a grind."
However, working regular-season hours in April actually might have re-invigorated Friedgen. The golf cart he usually scoots around the Terps' practice field sat empty and off to the side during the spring. Instead, the coach stood next to his quarterbacks and monitored their play, offering his usual blunt criticism throughout practice.
The Terps no doubt will need some of that tutelage if they are to win nearly as much as they did in Friedgen's first three seasons. From 2001-03, the Terps won at least 10 games a year and averaged at least 31 points per game in each season. The victories then vanished with a dormant attack, which fell to 17.7 points in 2004 and 24.5 a year ago.
To reverse that trend, Friedgen became more hands-on. Quarterback Sam Hollenbach noticed that Friedgen is more willing to issue praise during a workout instead of speaking up only "because practice was going downhill."
"It seems like he's loosened up a little bit and seems like he's enjoying coaching now," junior tailback Lance Ball said. "You see more smiles on his face. He's staying busy. I think he was kind of bored last year."
Not anymore. Friedgen, whose love of tinkering with formations is well-known, helped install more of the playbook than usual this spring. He was unafraid to use any of it, forcing the offense to remember some obscure calls and preventing the defense from preparing for only a handful of plays.
Most importantly, Friedgen was the one calling the plays, something he had not done regularly since becoming a head coach.
"I'll probably do it next year. I kind of like it," Friedgen said. "I kind of got the fire back. I wake up at 4 in the morning and I can't wait to get to work. I go to church and I've got plays running through my mind. I'm back."
Still, it likely would be wise for Friedgen to delegate some of his new responsibilities before preseason camp begins in August. He has interviewed six candidates for the quarterbacks coach position, but it became less of a priority once spring practice began.
One possible solution is shifting running backs coach John Donovan to quarterbacks and hiring another running backs coach. Donovan was a graduate assistant for three years at Georgia Tech with Friedgen before following him to Maryland.
"I just haven't had anybody ring my bell," Friedgen said. "I'm looking for a lot. I'm looking for a guy who can coach quarterbacks, can recruit, can understand our system, because he'll be in for a short time (before the season starts)."
Whoever is in charge of the quarterbacks will oversee a continuing competition for a starting job. Hollenbach, the incumbent, is the only eligible player in the program who threw a pass last season. Florida transfer Josh Portis, who impressed the Terps with his athleticism this spring, will sit out 2006 and then have three years of eligibility remaining.
Hollenbach might have maintained a stronger hold on the position had it not been for his 15 interceptions last season. He has more experience than challenger Jordan Steffy, a sophomore who redshirted in 2005.
Hollenbach is entering his fifth year in the system, but that didn't stop him from throwing three interceptions in the spring game. One came on a deflection, but another happened when cornerback Kevin Barnes anticipated the play by watching wideout Terrell Skinner, which only further agitated Friedgen.
Neither quarterback was especially impressive in the spring game, though Hollenbach worked throughout the spring on his game management and shotgun drops in an attempt to fine-tune his game.
"I feel pretty confident about my own ability to get the job done," Hollenbach said. "Whether (Friedgen) thinks that or not is a different story, but I feel like I've made some improvements in some areas that need to get better, and I really feel like there can be a lot more improvement that can be made this summer."
Much of Hollenbach's improvement will be tied to a young receiving corps. Three senior wideouts and tight end Vernon Davis, who combined for 160 of the Terps' 210 receptions last year, are gone. Senior Drew Weatherly (10 catches in 2005) is the one experienced player in a unit that also includes sophomores Danny Oquendo and Isaiah Williams and redshirt freshmen Darrius Heyward-Bey, Nolan Carroll and Skinner.
The group repeatedly dropped passes throughout April, including in the spring game, and will work with the quarterbacks over the summer to ensure that the Terps can present a balanced offense.
"We're going to do a lot more this summer," Heyward-Bey said. "We're going to go out and practice one-on-one so we have a connection. Coming into the fall, we should be 20 times better than we were in the spring."
There was change on the other side of the ball, as Chris Cosh took over as defensive coordinator for the retired Gary Blackney. Cosh, also the team's middle linebackers coach, made only subtle changes to the scheme and spent the spring emphasizing fundamentals. His vocal presence usually was noticed when he raced in after a play to praise or ream a player.
"I don't want to mess up if I'm a linebacker," senior cornerback Josh Wilson said. "He just goes on a search and destroy mission to find (the offending player). ... (But) he's a great guy, and I love talking to him. He's all about high energy and leadership."
The Terps escaped the spring without too many unexpected injury problems. Left tackle Stephon Heyer (torn ACL) practiced some but did not play in the spring game. Tailback Josh Allen, who is working his way back from major knee surgery, estimated that he was at about 80 percent after playing in the spring game. Projected starting center Edwin Williams tore a tendon in a finger on his non-snapping hand while scuffling with defensive end Jeremy Navarre during the first week of practice.
Meanwhile, right tackle Brandon Nixon and backup fullback Matt Deese were suspended on the eve of the first practice for violations of team rules. Defensive tackle Robert Armstrong, who missed last year after back surgery but enjoyed a fine April, sat out the spring game for conduct detrimental to the team. Friedgen declined to say when -- or if -- the offending players would return.
Those problems aside, the Terps' biggest questions -- quarterback and wideout -- did not change. Whether Friedgen nurtures those positions or a new assistant does, they probably will determine whether Maryland misses a bowl game for the third straight season.
"We have a lot of work to do if we're going to be the team we want to be," Friedgen said. "I still think we can be that, but I think this summer is critical for our wide receivers and quarterbacks."
Spring 2006 Overview
One 5-6 season (in 2004) didn't cause many observers to jump off the Ralph Friedgen bandwagon. But another 5-6 record last fall, plus the losses of both veteran coordinators (Charlie Taaffe, Gary Blackney) in the offseason, raised some legitimate doubts. In his first three years at his alma mater, Friedgen built an outstanding staff, won an ACC title (2001), posted the first consecutive 10-win seasons in school history (then added a third), went to the Orange, Peach and Gator bowls, compiled a 19-1 home record, earned consensus national coach of the year honors (2001), directed back-to-back school scoring records, helped to increase season-ticket sales, upgraded recruiting and revolutionized the program's approaches to facilities, technology and other vital things. The Terps again appear to have good -- not great -- talent in 2006, and a mostly soft nonconference schedule (William & Mary, Middle Tennessee State, at West Virginia, Florida International) should help. Will the Fridge rediscover his magic?
Probable 2006 Starters
- -- redshirted ^ -- six/more 2005 starts
- -- injured/missed spring drills
Coming On Strong
The Terps have plenty of exciting options at tailback, led by 2005 surprise Lance Ball and 2004 starter Josh Allen. Rock-solid returning starters: LT Jared Gaither, DT Conrad Bolston, LB David Holloway, CB Josh Wilson, P Adam Podlesh. Also looking good: WR/PR Danny Oquendo, WR Drew Weatherly, LT Stephon Heyer (24 career starts), LB Erin Henderson, CB Isaiah Gardner.
Cause For Concern?
Taaffe and Blackney weren't great recruiters, but they always prepared their units well, and they were at their best on game days. Friedgen still hasn't named a replacement for Taaffe, and Chris Cosh (Blackney's successor) has a much better reputation as a recruiter than as a coordinator. Also: tight end, inconsistent receivers, defensive end, depth at multiple positions.
On The Sidelines
The following players missed all or most of spring drills: RB Josh Allen (knee/limited), LB Rick Costa (shoulder), FB Matt Deese (suspension), OL Jack Griffin (shoulder), LT Stephon Heyer (knee/limited), RB Keon Lattimore (shoulder), RT Brandon Nixon (suspension), LG Donnie Woods (shoulder), OC Edwin Williams (hand).
The following scholarship athletes left the program in the last 12 months with eligibility remaining: WR Paschal Abiamiri (chose to graduate), TE Vernon Davis (NFL draft), LB Eric Lenz (medical/back), OL Dave Quaintance (chose to graduate), TE Brad Schell (chose to graduate), LB Jeris Smith (chose to graduate), QB Joel Statham (transfer/Jacksonville State).
Chart By: David Glenn