September 13, 2005
COLLEGE PARK -- Most football games are won and lost in the trenches. They always have been, and they probably always will be.
If Maryland winds up in the lower echelon of the ACC again this season, as many have predicted, it will be primarily because of subpar performances along both lines. It was obvious after two games that the Terrapins have serious issues up front, both offensively and defensively. Of course, that came as no real surprise to anyone who saw the team's preseason depth chart.
It's rarely good to have true freshmen starting anywhere, but it's almost always a bad sign when they're starting on the offensive or defensive lines. Those positions should be manned by players who have spent years in a college weight room, getting bigger and stronger, and mature programs such as Virginia Tech have very few exceptions to that rule.
Yet the Terps already have one true freshman (Jeremy Navarre) starting at strong-side defensive end, and they probably will have another (Jared Gaither) starting at left tackle by midseason. Gaither is being forced to play sooner than expected because of the season-ending injury suffered in August by senior tackle Stephon Heyer, an All-ACC candidate.
The program's surprising lack of depth at tackle was exposed in preseason camp, when after Heyer's injury the coaches decided to move senior Derek Miller to that spot from tight end. Redshirt freshman Dane Randolph only recently had been switched from defensive tackle to offensive tackle, and he is still learning. Sophomore Scott Burley missed much of the preseason with an injury, and he appears more suited to right tackle anyway.
Miller (6-8, 274) was manhandled by Clemson end Charles Bennett and had to be removed in favor of Gaither, a massive youngster who stands 6-9 and weighs 330 pounds. While Gaither obviously has the size to combat ACC ends, he does not yet have the technique or the experience.
"We need to get Jared ready in a hurry," Friedgen said after the Clemson loss, "because Derek is beginning to wear down."
There are plenty of weaknesses elsewhere along both lines. Losing Shawne Merriman a year early to the NFL hurt the Terps at Leo, their hybrid linebacker-end position. Redshirt sophomore Jermaine Lemons and redshirt freshman Trey Covington are splitting time there, and neither is even close to being ready.
Perhaps the most disappointing recent development up front involved massive nose tackle Rob Armstrong, who was expected to anchor the line this season. He sat out almost all of the preseason with a recurring back ailment and was demoted to the scout team, a move that initially led the junior to leave the program.
Coach Ralph Friedgen talked Armstrong into staying after agreeing that the 6-4, 307-pounder should undergo back surgery. It will be interesting to see if that surgery comes off, because there may be a disagreement between the player's family and the team's medical staff as to whether it's necessary.
What is clear is that Armstrong is Maryland's biggest, strongest interior lineman, the player best-suited to taking on double teams and holding the point of attack. With Armstrong unavailable, line coach Dave Sollazzo was forced to move tackle Conrad Bolston to nose and shift sophomore Jack Griffin from end to tackle. That is how Navarre, a promising prospect who ideally would have started next season, wound up as the first-stringer at end this fall.
The resulting undersized and inexperienced unit was gouged for big yardage by Navy's triple-option blocking schemes, and it was pushed around by a bigger, stronger Clemson line. The Tigers rushed for 72 yards in the fourth quarter and mounted the game-winning touchdown drive almost exclusively on the ground, an indication that the Terps wore down up front.
Maryland's coaches and players may have gotten a false sense of security from the offensive line's performance against Navy. The Terps' 209 yards rushing in that game may have been misleading, since that total came against a team that plays three down linemen who average around 260 pounds.
The Terps found tougher sledding against the Tigers, managing a mere 56 yards rushing on 38 attempts. That number smelled of last season's ground production, an area of weakness that Friedgen and coordinator Charlie Taaffe vowed to improve.
Through two games, Maryland certainly committed to the run, but the inability to establish any consistency against Clemson was alarming. Again, a look at the depth chart helps explain why the line struggled to get any push against a bigger, stronger opponent.
Three starters -- right tackle Brandon Nixon, right guard Andrew Crummey and left guard Donnie Woods -- are sophomores. Redshirt freshman Edwin Williams replaced fifth-year senior Ryan McDonald (a former walk-on) at center in the second half versus Clemson and was whistled for a crucial holding call during Maryland's last-gasp drive.
"I'm very disappointed on how we ran the ball," Friedgen said after the Clemson loss. "If we could have run the ball, we could have won the game. A good team takes the ball and runs it 80 yards when you know they're going to run it. I hope we get there some day, but we aren't there yet."
Jackson, Davis Rise Above Mess
Even after only two games, it already was obvious that Maryland has two absolute studs -- one on offense, one on defense.
Middle linebacker D'Qwell Jackson picked up where he left off last year, recording 34 tackles through two games. It is almost uncanny how he seems to get to the ball on almost every play, a trait that speaks to his tremendous instincts and remarkable closing speed.
Jackson almost single-handedly disrupted Navy's option, blowing through would-be blocks repeatedly in piling up 18 tackles. He was all over the place again versus Clemson, notching 16 tackles, many that prevented huge gains.
Offensively, Maryland needs to figure out a way to get the ball to freakish tight end Vernon Davis more often. Davis did not do much in the opener, but he blew up in a big way with six receptions for a career-high 140 yards against Clemson.
Davis is a remarkable combination of size (6-3, 253) and speed (4.41 in the 40), a weapon for which most defenses have no answer. He is too big and strong to be covered by a defensive back, too fast to be handled by a linebacker.
Davis, whose body looks as if it were sculpted out of stone, showed what an absolute beast he can be on an incredible 30-yard catch and run against the Tigers. He literally dragged half the Clemson defense for the last 10 yards of that play, getting pushed out of bounds before being brought down. A few plays later, Davis displayed his athletic side, juking one defender and racing past two others on a 29-yard touchdown reception.
How many teams have a tight end who also handles kickoff returns? That Davis also is the team's backup punt returner speaks to his amazing array of talents.