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Inexperience, Injuries Complicating Hopes For Return To Glory

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

  August 27, 2005

The Big Picture
Maryland Insider: Updates / Analysis

COLLEGE PARK — In 1994, the National Archives opened a research branch in College Park, filled with historical records documenting the Nixon Administration and the assassination of John F. Kennedy, among other topics.

A decade later, Ralph Friedgen learned that, National Archives or no National Archives, memories of the past fade as quickly in College Park as in any other college football hub.

In his first three years at his alma mater, the man known as "The Fridge"abruptly and without warning dragged his Terps onto the national stage. In 2001 they won the ACC title for the first time since 1985 and advanced to the BCS (Orange Bowl). In 2002 they won 10 of their last 11 games, crushing Tennessee in the Peach Bowl. The following year brought 10 more wins and another dominating postseason victory, this time over West Virginia in the Gator Bowl.

Three years, 31 wins. And then came last year: offensive struggles, repeated turnovers, inept quarterbacking, several narrow losses, a losing record, no trip to a bowl game and … boos from the home fans?

Perhaps even those jeers can be seen as a measure of success for a program that suddenly faces expectations to win every year. Indeed, season-ticket sales have continued to soar, surpassing last year's total of about 31,000 before fall practice even began. But with inexperience dotting both sides of the ball, question marks at quarterback and running back, and seven games against teams that had winning records in 2004, Maryland's already hyper-competitive coach has pledged to take it up another level.

"I don't think there's any question we're more motivated,"Friedgen said. "I told our coaches, we've got to do the best coaching job we've done in our lives this year."

Their focus will be on bringing a team that's short on experience up to speed. The Terps' likely quarterback, junior Sam Hollenbach, has one career start. Their two leading running backs, Mario Merrills and Keon Lattimore, have never started. There will be a new placekicker — Nick Novak graduated after setting the ACC scoring record — and a new long snapper. A potentially disastrous preseason knee injury suffered by left tackle Stephon Heyer means the offensive line at times could feature two freshmen and three sophomores.

"My one apprehension with this team,"Friedgen said, "is that they're very, very young. If we can continue to keep the same attitude, the same motivation and drive, we'll be successful, we'll be a good team. (But) they've got to learn from their mistakes."

Before the first week of fall practice had concluded, Maryland's youth had Friedgen considering putting a halt to the installation of his complicated offense, figuring that his team would be "better off with fewer good plays than a lot of bad ones."And he continued to struggle to balance a life's worth of offensive scheming with players a year or two removed from simplistic high school formations.

"The problem is, the simpler we keep it the more complicated the defense is going to be, because we're so simple that they can do anything they want to do,"he said. "The trick of this whole thing — when you write your coaching book, put this in there — is to be as complicated as you can to defend but as simple as you can to execute. That's the trick, to find that happy medium."

That inevitably conjures up memories of last year, when that happy medium somehow disappeared in a fog of interceptions and missed opportunities.

Friedgen's first three years had been marked by unparalleled offensive success. His team set the school record for points in 2001 and broke it in 2002, excelling with unheralded quarterbacks Shaun Hill and Scott McBrien. So when Joel Statham took over the offense last year, there was no panic. Through four games — admittedly against weaker opponents — Maryland averaged nearly 35 points and more than 450 yards a game.

Then the offense disappeared. The final seven games yielded five touchdowns. The quarterbacks finished with twice as many interceptions (16) as touchdowns (eight). The running game vanished, averaging 2.9 yards per carry for the season. Maryland finished near the bottom of the ACC in virtually every offensive category.

"We never had the problems we had last year, for three years,"veteran offensive coordinator Charlie Taaffe said. "We've always been able to run the football. We've had fairly productive offenses. We've scored a lot of points. We broke the school scoring record twice."

Fans turned on Statham, and Hollenbach finally took over before the season finale. The defense largely did its job, but the locker room never divided, players said, and defensive stars still don't say a bad word about their offensive teammates.

"The offense has to play better, the defense has to play better,"said senior linebacker D'Qwell Jackson, Maryland's only preseason All-ACC selection. "Personally, you just try to hold yourself accountable, and whatever mistakes you made last year, you try to cut down on those this upcoming season."

Indeed, as Maryland lost five of its last seven games, the sense was occasionally one of wonder rather than anger or discouragement.

"You really felt that we were better than that and things just didn't go our way,"Heyer said before his preseason injury. "There were probably a few times I was shocked a little bit at what was going on, how things just weren't going our way."

By the time spring practice rolled around, Friedgen knew he needed to make some changes. Players had told him they no longer were having fun, so he decided not to run them into the ground and even ended practices with a pickup basketball game and a slam-dunk contest.

Friedgen himself stepped up his dedication to on-field concerns, watching tape from the spring game at least 15 times and leading his staff on a page-by-page review of the playbook. The coach also sensed a disconnect with his players, so both he and his assistants tried to make themselves more visible and

"When you see them there talking to you, just having a normal conversation, it makes you feel a little bit more comfortable about the whole situation,"Jackson said. "It makes you want to play for that coach and for the program."

Maryland thus entered August practice with plenty of good feelings, despite being picked to finish fifth out of six teams in the Atlantic Division. Even that was looked at as a positive; after all, the Terps were picked to finish seventh before their 2001 ACC title season.

Still, no amount of optimism can erase a few inconvenient facts.

Take Josh Allen's knee injury, for example. The tailback was never brilliant last year, but he contributed Maryland's longest touchdown — a 72-yard reception — and one of its two 100-yard rushing performances. He went down with a knee injury in the final game of 2004 and will miss the season.

Or look at the quarterback position, easily the most scrutinized on the team. Hollenbach considered transferring while a fourth-stringer last summer, rose to third-team when a player left the team, and was pressed into duty during an embarrassing blowout loss to Virginia Tech. His first college start came the following week against the Demon Deacons; he was 16 of 27 for 167 yards and didn't record a touchdown. Equally important, he didn't throw an interception.

The coaches hope, above all, for steady and consistent play from the 6-5 Hollenbach, whose decision-making and poise impressed Friedgen early in preseason camp.

"I just think he's a solid guy that's shown me an awful lot,"Friedgen said. "What I think our quarterbacks have to do is play smart, can't turn the ball over, have got to make good decisions."

Those would seem to be Hollenbach's specialties. He has decent mobility but not blazing speed, decent arm strength but not a cannon, and a clear willingness to follow direction.

"I'm not trying to do anything different,"Hollenbach said. "Just being consistent and playing within the offense and we'll be fine."

Statham now is seen as a player more likely to succeed coming off the bench, while sophomore Jordan Steffy — the most touted and athletic of the three — missed spring practice with arm and knee injuries and still needs to demonstrate a command of the offense.

For the inexperienced quarterbacks to prosper, they'll need help from an equally inexperienced line that is filled with the kind of exceptional athletes — big, strong and quick — that Friedgen has coveted since his arrival.

Redshirt freshman Edwin Williams (6-2, 317) probably will start at center. Redshirt freshman Dane Randolph was a defensive end last spring before switching sides in the offseason; Heyer's injury will almost assure him of playing time. Massive true freshman Jared Gaither (6-9, 330) has played only two years of organized football, but he got a long look in August, too.

"If they can fulfill their potential as early as possible,"Friedgen said, "I think we have a chance to have a tremendous nucleus for the future."

But Maryland aspires to perennial contender status, and such programs do not have the luxury of dreaming about the future. Five freshman wide receivers joined the Terps this year. One priority early in camp was to discover which of them (Darrius Heyward-Bey and Isaiah Williams) might be able to contribute immediately.

That will be something of a theme this year: How much can be expected of the youngsters, how soon will inexperience cease to be an impediment, how quickly can the past be bound up and put away like a dusty historical record?

"I knew (10 wins) wasn't going to happen every year,"Friedgen said. "I don't know if our kids think it just happens. What I think they realize now is that you've got to work, you've got to do the little things in order for the big things to happen. And I see that happening with this team."

The Big Picture

Ralph Friedgen has done a lot of soul-searching since the end of last season. After leading Maryland to 31 victories and three major bowl games in his first three years, he experienced failure for the first time as a head coach. Not only did the Terrapins endure a
5-6 record in 2004, but Friedgen's reputation as an offensive genius took a hit, as his team was woeful on that side of the ball. By his own admission, the coach spent too much time promoting the program and fund-raising, and not enough on day-to-day football operations. Now he has vowed to reconnect with the players, work more closely with his staff, and re-instill the hunger in a program he believes grew complacent.

The PooP
The coaches now admit they made a major mistake by replacing the fullback with an H-back for most of last season. It was a decision somewhat dictated by personnel, as the team lacked a true fullback, while the versatile Vernon Davis seemed like the prototypical H-back. But Davis struggled when placed in the role of blocker, either leading the tailback into the hole or picking up blitzes. By getting fancy, Friedgen and coordinator Charlie Taaffe sacrificed a staple of their offense, and the Terps finished ninth in the ACC in rushing. Now they're back to using a fullback on most downs, and they believe Ricardo Dickerson will be an effective isolation blocker.

Done For Me Lately
Year ACC Overall Postseason

1995 4-4 (5) 6-5 None

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

ACC: 36-44 (.450)
Overall: 62-54 (.534)

Building Blocks
D'Qwell Jackson could have gone to the NFL after leading the ACC in tackles in 2004. However, offseason wrist surgery led him to stay in school, and he should be one of the nation's top linebackers this fall. Jackson anchors a solid unit that also features William Kershaw, who seems poised for a break-out campaign. On offense, Davis should continue his progress as a playmaker, after leading the team in receiving (27-441) last season.

Coming On Strong
After getting virtually nothing out of its receiving corps in 2004, Maryland expects that unit to be a strength this fall. Nobody had a bigger spring or looked better in August than senior Jo Jo Walker. With legitimate 4.4 speed and lightning-quick moves, he has all the makings of a big-play threat. The Terps also love the potential of true freshmen Darrius Heyward-Bey and Isaiah Williams.

Cause For Concern?
Maryland is extremely young and inexperienced along the offensive line. Left tackle Stephon Heyer, the unit's only returning starter, suffered a serious knee injury in August. So raw were the other options at the position that the coaches switched senior tight end Derek Miller to tackle, where he likely will start. The team also will miss kicker Nick Novak, a four-year starter and the ACC's all-time leading scorer. Neither walk-on Dan Ennis nor redshirt freshman Obi Egekeze has proven reliable to this point.

The Whole Truth
"I don't think there's any question we're more motivated as a coaching staff. … I watched our spring film about 15 times. I had the assistants in for about two weeks just going over that film to make sure we were all on the same page. I think we've done our due diligence. We need to do the best coaching job we've done in our lives this year."

-- Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen


Maryland Insider: Updates / Analysis

Wide receiver Danny Melendez, hailed as a smooth strider who ran good routes and possessed great hands coming out of high school, has shown only flashes of those skills at Maryland. Simply put, he has not produced, totaling only 21 catches for 307 yards and two touchdowns through three seasons. About the only news Melendez has made in College Park came last year, when he was called out by coach Ralph Friedgen. After catching a 39-yard pass against Florida State, Melendez inexplicably headed for the sideline, even though he had nothing but green grass in front of him.

"I've waited three years to get a receiver that wide-open against Florida State, and he runs out of bounds," a disgusted Friedgen said afterward.

It turned out that Melendez had pulled up because he suffered a hamstring injury that would hamper him for the rest of the season. At one point, after a falling-out with coaches, the youngster even considered quitting the team.

Now Melendez looks like a new man. Suddenly, he is the Terps' top wideout, after leading the receivers in big plays during both spring and preseason practice. Coaches attribute his new-found focus and maturity to the arrival of his first child. Friedgen excused Melendez from a spring practice so he could attend the birth of his daughter, Hayley Elizabeth.

"It's life-changing. It's a new perspective. It's my motivation," Melendez said of becoming a father. "Everyone has different motivation, and that's my personal motivation."

Give the Maryland coaches some credit for thinking outside the box after starting left tackle Stephon Heyer suffered a season-ending knee injury in August.

Physically, the best tackles remaining on the roster were redshirt freshman Dane Randolph and true freshman Jared Gaither. Mentally, those two youngsters were a long way from knowing the team's complex playbook and understanding the blocking schemes.

So assistant Ray Rychleski suggested switching fifth-year senior Derek Miller to tackle. Friedgen initially resisted, since Miller is such an outstanding blocker at tight end, but then he realized it was the best option. The Terps have good depth at tight end but none on the line.

"Derek understands the interior blocking schemes and often worked in combination with the tackle," Rychleski said. "He's big and strong enough physically to handle it and has great technique, but most importantly he knows the system."

If you had asked defensive coordinator Gary Blackney last spring to name his most promising young linebackers, he probably would have mentioned Eric Lenz (6-4, 228) and Erin Henderson (6-3, 233).

Both had impressed the staff with their size, athleticism and instincts while working with the scout team in 2004. Then they had strong springs. Henderson, the younger brother of former Maryland great E.J. Henderson, emerged as the No. 2 weak-side linebacker. Lenz was pushing Jeris Smith to be the backup at strong-side linebacker. Both also were being penciled in for roles on special teams.

As it turns out, neither will contribute this season. Lenz quietly left the program over the summer and reportedly will transfer to West Virginia. Rumors abound about what happened with Lenz, who stonewalled one reporter who inquired about his situation. Privately, Maryland coaches said only that the youngster did not depart of his own accord, but rather was asked to leave. Henderson was enjoying a terrific August camp before going down with a torn ACL. The Terps were planning to use him at both the strong and weak-side spots this fall.