By Bill Wagner,
Annapolis (Md.) Capital
April 21, 2003 COLLEGE PARK This hasn't been the smoothest offseason for Maryland, but that hasn't slowed down the impressive rebuilding project of coach Ralph Friedgen.
First, spring practice was pushed back by nearly a month after heavy snowfall blanketed the Mid-Atlantic region in February. Friedgen had hoped to conduct camp earlier than usual because the team's practice fields were scheduled to be torn up and replaced. As a result, the Terrapins were forced to go about their business amidst major construction. The weight room was temporarily housed in tents, located on the Byrd Stadium promenade, and ongoing renovation efforts resulted in numerous other inconveniences.
There also were administrative issues to deal with, as Friedgen had to hire two new assistants after the sudden firing of Rod Sharpless (recruiting scandal) and the unexpected departure of recruiting coordinator/backfield coach Mike Locksley (Florida).
On the eve of spring drills, standout return specialist Steve Suter suffered a knee injury that required arthroscopic surgery. This was a key camp for Suter, who was slated to make the switch from slot back to wide receiver. Friedgen also learned that promising freshman linebacker Randy Earle was withdrawing from school (he's hoping to return in August), while enigmatic running back Jason Crawford quit the program one week into camp.
To top it all off, Friedgen was dealing with terrible pain as the result of bulging disks in his back and a bum right hip. He spent most of the spring tooling around the practice fields in a golf cart, not at all the way he prefers to coach. After years of dealing with hip problems, Friedgen will undergo replacement surgery on May 12. In the meantime, he has undergone acupuncture treatments and taken epidural shots to relieve the pain.
Despite the many distractions, Maryland entered spring practice with fewer question marks than it has had in many years. The team looks solid at quarterback, tailback, tight end, kicker, linebacker and in the secondary. Better recruiting and better retention also have led to increased numbers, the type of which haven't been seen in College Park since the Bobby Ross era.
Friedgen welcomed a whopping 97 players to spring camp, a figure that means more depth and greater competition at many positions. The coach had only about 65 players available for spring practice during his first two years on the job. Considering that the Terps have 18 freshmen arriving in August, the staff actually may have to make cuts prior to two-a-days.
Where I see a lot of things changing this year with this team that we haven't had with other teams is everything is more competitive, Friedgen said. Just to be invited back in the fall, when I can only bring in 105, is competitive. So whether you're a walk-on fighting for an invitation back or a scholarship player battling for a spot on the depth chart, you're competing for a position.
Nevertheless, closer scrutiny of the depth chart shows that Maryland isn't yet a superpower, a fact Friedgen readily admits. There are concerns at numerous positions, including fullback, defensive end, middle linebacker and several spots on both lines. Other areas have some depth but could stand a talent upgrade.
Perhaps the most obvious hole to fill comes at middle linebacker, where Maryland must replace two-time All-American and 2002 Butkus Award winner E.J. Henderson. There is no shortage of candidates, as numerous players want to assume the role of primary tackler.
There's a lot of guys who want to play that position right now, Friedgen said, and I keep telling them: It's the not the position, it's the guy who played it.
Junior Leon Joe requested the first crack at replacing Henderson. Joe, the team's leading returning tackler (103), has played weak-side linebacker throughout his career and does not have the size of a traditional middle man.
Leon wanted a shot at it, and I don't quite understand why. The (weak-side backer) doesn't get blocked, Friedgen said. (Joe) thinks that's the glory position, but he's going to find that the guy in the middle has to take on the center, then the fullback, plus you sometimes have tackles blocking down on you.
Not surprisingly, Friedgen called off the experiment just one week into camp, saying Joe just didn't have enough tail in there to hold up.
D'Qwell Jackson, who recorded 51 tackles as a freshman as Joe's backup last season, was moved into the middle. He isn't any bigger than Joe but is more of a knee-bender and a bit more physical, according to Friedgen. Of course, all spring developments could be rendered moot if consensus prep All-American Wesley Jefferson shows up in August and takes over the position. Jefferson has all the tools (size, speed, aggressiveness) to become a dominant middle linebacker.
Meanwhile, numerous recruiting misses and the sudden (but somewhat expected) departure of junior James Lynch left the staff scrambling to find a fullback. Lynch, reportedly in dire academic straits, withdrew from school and applied for the NFL draft. The Terrapins failed to land Chris Wilson or Brandon Snow in 2001 and missed on Tony Hunt this past recruiting season. All signed with Penn State.
That left a rather motley crew battling to become the starter at a position that is more important to the offense than many realize. In Maryland's system, the fullback is the primary lead blocker on running plays and also provides pass protection. Yet the player must be versatile enough to run the ball occasionally and catch it coming out of the backfield. Lynch had the size and athleticism to handle the myriad of roles capably and could very well find a home in the NFL. None of the potential replacements possesses the complete package.
Starting the spring atop the depth chart was Bernie Fiddler, who has flip-flopped from linebacker to fullback throughout his career. Fiddler, who was used extensively last season in short-yardage situations, has proven a capable blocker but his ball-carrying capabilities are suspect. Two other former linebackers, Maurice Smith and Ricardo Dickerson, also are vying for the spot. While Smith and Dickerson both played fullback in high school, neither could be considered a dynamic runner or pass-catcher.
Friedgen also spent the spring trying to identify a backup quarterback. With Chris Kelley having switched to safety, a pair of redshirt freshmen with Joel Statham holding a slight lead over Sam Hollenbach remain the top contenders to back up returning starter Scott McBrien. Friedgen likes what he sees in both young players.
By late April, with the snow long gone and temperatures rising into the 70s, Maryland was the only ACC team still practicing. The Terps' annual Red-White Game was set for April 26, just as many players began to talk about the more enjoyable non-football sights of spring.
They better not, Friedgen said. This is Maryland Terrapin football. We go 15 practice days. Spring fever is for those guys who won't win football games.