September 27, 2005
COLLEGE PARK -- Maryland may have found a new feature tailback during its otherwise unimpressive 22-12 victory over Wake Forest. The Terrapins' ground game continued to sputter for the better part of three quarters, until sophomore Keon Lattimore settled into a comfort zone and began gobbling up yards.
With an inexperienced line still struggling to open holes, coach Ralph Friedgen needed a back who sometimes could make his own yardage. For one game, at least, the solidly built Lattimore showed he could be that type of runner.
Maryland coaches always have felt that Lattimore possesses the size (235 pounds) and speed (4.5 in 40) to be a big-time back. However, the local product (Baltimore-Mount St. Joseph) has been unable to put it all together in practice, too often missing blocking assignments or running to the wrong hole. Coming out of preseason camp, he remained behind senior Mario Merrills and sophomore Lance Ball.
Yet it always has been an oddity in sports that certain players perform better in games than in practices. Considering that he is the younger brother of a perennial NFL All-Pro, perhaps it is no surprise that Lattimore is proving to be a gamer.
Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis has been like a father figure to his half-brother, who is nine years younger. The two have trained together, and there is no question that Lattimore possesses Lewis-like intensity.
Lattimore saw limited action in Maryland's first three games this fall, carrying the ball only nine times for 29 yards. Given an opportunity to play a more prominent role against Wake, he responded with 76 yards and a touchdown on 15 attempts. The way he got his yardage most impressed the coaches. He juked some defenders and ran over others.
"Keon Lattimore really took a step forward today," Friedgen said. "He made some guys miss and broke some tackles, which was what we needed."
Lattimore showed determination and power in scoring a key three-yard TD early in the fourth quarter. He was met short of the goal line by a trio of Wake defenders, but he kept his legs driving and bulled his way into the end zone.
That was the type of running Maryland had not been getting from Merrills, who had begun going in east-west directions too much. He did not get into the game in the second half versus Wake, as Lattimore and Ball split the work.
Ball, who doesn't have the straight-ahead speed of either Merrills or Lattimore, ran hard between the tackles in gaining 51 yards on 17 carries against the Deacons. He also does not normally go down on first contact and tends to fall forward.
Meanwhile, Lattimore had a bit of an I-told-you-so attitude in the aftermath of his break-out performance in Winston Salem.
"According to me, I was doing everything I could to get myself on the field, but maybe the coaches were seeing something I didn't see," Lattimore said. "It was the coaches' decision, but when my number was called, I did what I had to do."
Jefferson, Cesa Among Bright Spots
Lattimore isn't the only Maryland player who's begun pushing for a starting spot or additional playing time.
Linebacker Wesley Jefferson finally appears to be reaching the potential that comes with being a consensus prep All-American. The 6-2, 236-pound sophomore, who has been a disappointment to date, is suddenly the team's third-leading tackler despite not being a starter.
Jefferson, who is listed as the backup at both middle linebacker and weak-side linebacker, is making many of his tackles on special teams. After four games, an argument could be made that Jefferson had outplayed starting linebacker William Kershaw.
Kershaw, a senior nicknamed the "Hit Man," has not lived up to the preseason hype heaped upon him by coaches. Reports out of August camp were that Kershaw had developed into an absolute beast and was poised for a monstrous season.
That hasn't been the case so far, as Kershaw has missed too many tackles, gotten caught out of position and generally not been a playmaker. He had two fewer tackles than Jefferson (29-27) through four games.
Meanwhile, redshirt freshman Trey Covington has overtaken sophomore Jermaine Lemons at the hybrid end-linebacker spot that Maryland dubs Leo. Covington ranks among the team's leading tacklers with 16, while also displaying some natural pass-rushing ability.
It didn't take long for Tim Cesa to assert himself as the best fullback. Senior Ricardo Dickerson (6-1, 247) earned the job by default because Cesa (6-1, 243) missed all of the preseason with mononucleosis. Cesa was cleared to play prior to the West Virginia game, and he showed against Wake that he is a more effective lead blocker.
Strong safety Milton Harris, a transfer from Division I-AA Delaware State, quietly has evolved into another solid contributor. The senior enjoyed his best game as a Terp with seven solo tackles and two forced fumbles versus the Deacons.
Walk-on placekicker Dan Ennis also has been a pleasant surprise, making all 12 of his field goal attempts and all eight extra points. He had been locked in a spirited preseason duel with scholarship redshirt freshman Obi Egekeze before the latter kicker suffered a quadriceps injury that sidelined him throughout September.
Ennis' strong performance provided another example of why many coaches are reluctant to grant scholarships to kickers, choosing instead to bring in invited walk-ons and make them prove themselves. Ennis did not even play football at Glenelg High in the Howard County area of Maryland. The 5-11, 154-pound former soccer standout steadily has improved his leg strength and technique during his four seasons in the program, helping to cushion the loss of perennial All-ACC selection Nick Novak.
Other "step-up" players in recent weeks included left tackle Jared Gaither, wideout Danny Melendez (13 receptions for 210 yards), nose tackle Carlos Feliciano and cornerback Josh Wilson.
Maryland Football: Random Notes
* Sam Hollenbach continues to show that he's the type of quarterback who will not lose games for his team.
He did play poorly against Wake, missing numerous open receivers in a 12-for-22 passing effort and failing to get the team out of the huddle quickly enough on several occasions. However, he also has not made the critical mistakes or turnovers that plagued 2004 starter Joel Statham. Friedgen and coordinator Charlie Taaffe would like to see Hollenbach make more plays, but at least he's giving the team a chance to win.
* In his first three seasons on the job, it seemed that Friedgen had all the answers. Practically every button Friedgen pushed produced a positive result, and he correctly was lauded for his preparation and in-game adjustments.
Now Friedgen sometimes seems to be grasping at straws in an effort to get Maryland headed in the right direction. He recently sounded like a confused coach when debating how to correct the defense's penchant for wearing down late in games.
Clemson and West Virginia both took control of the line of scrimmage and rammed the ball down Maryland's throat in the fourth quarter. The following week, Friedgen wondered aloud whether to have the defense do more or less conditioning work.
"Is it a conditioning thing, or is it a fatigue thing? How do I get this team to be stronger, tougher and more physical at the point of attack?" said Friedgen, who opted to shorten practices in order to save the players' legs. "Do I wait till spring practice? Do I do it during the week? Do I go out in shells and hopefully they'll be so hungry to hit on Saturday? ... I don't know. I've contemplated all of them."
Meanwhile, Friedgen and his staff have to find a way to make Maryland more disciplined. In recent years, the Terps have become more and more prone to late hits, trash talk and other thuggish behavior on the field.
Clemson had two drives prolonged or improved by unsportsmanlike conduct penalties against Maryland. Cornerback Gerrick McPhearson was whistled for a late hit out of bounds, while linebacker William Kershaw was flagged for back-talking an official.
It was a similar story against Wake Forest, as safety Christian Varner was penalized for a helmet-to-helmet hit that kept alive a touchdown drive. While it was questionable whether Varner actually connected, there was no denying that he flew in late in a spearing fashion.