By Mike Ashley
April 26, 2004 SPRING 2004 OVERVIEW COLLEGE PARK Ralph Friedgen is probably a terrible card player. He has no poker face. He tipped his hand again this spring, when the gregarious coach appeared as happy as ever, despite the return of just 10 starters heading into the fall. Many experts will be inclined to bet against Maryland in 2004, despite Friedgen's ACC-record 31-8 start in three years at his alma mater. But Friedgen is honest to a fault, and the worst news for Terrapin foes is that "The Fridge" was more than pleased with his team's progress in March and April. "We're ahead of where I thought we'd be at this point," said Friedgen, pointing to the team's youth, including 36 players who have all four years of eligibility remaining. "They're a very young but enthusiastic group. I've really enjoyed the spring. If anything, we've had to calm the team down. They're aggressive. They like to play football, and it's been good to be with them and see them getting better at each practice." Most notably, redshirt sophomore quarterback Joel Statham improved during spring drills, apparently enough to satisfy even the notoriously demanding Friedgen. "Joel has made some progress," Friedgen said. "He's seeing things very well, and he's making very good decisions. When he makes a mistake now, he knows he made it. Now the question is, can he do it in a game?" Statham, who has thrown just 25 passes during his college career, entered the spring in a wide-open duel with fellow sophomore Sam Hollenbach, highly touted redshirt freshman Ryan Mitch and true freshman Dan Gronkowski, who raised some eyebrows early with his play. Eventually, though, it became clear that Statham's experience, at least in comparison to his competitors, set him apart. He has a strong arm and good size (6-1, 207). Friedgen and fellow offensive mastermind Charlie Taaffe are attempting to combine elements of recent Maryland offenses under quarterbacks Scott McBrien and Shaun Hill to best utilize Statham's skills. Statham can throw the intermediate pass routes that helped McBrien excel, and he can run a more traditional option attack like the one Hill directed. Maryland's starting quarterback in 2004 also is expected to spend much of his time putting the ball in the hands of sophomore tailback Josh Allen, who rushed for team highs of 922 yards and eight touchdowns during last year's 10-3 season, which ended with a victory in the Gator Bowl. That tactic could be a natural byproduct of the move to simplify things for Statham and the other young quarterbacks. "What we've done in the past is try to get as much of our offense in as we possibly could, so you have something to pull (back) from next season," Friedgen said. "But we took a different approach this year. We have enough to win our first three games, I think. That's a different approach and maybe the right approach. Maybe that's why we haven't done well in the early going (the last two seasons)." Opponents shouldn't count on the Terrapins being any easier to diagnose or defend, though. A dearth of talent at fullback, coupled with a glut at tight end, has the offensive coaches toying with using a hybrid H-back position. That would enable them to get athletic multi-purpose players Vernon Davis and Rob Abiamiri on the field more often. The H-back focus also would provide yet another look in an already complex offense, and one that could launch the 6-3, 231-pound Davis to stardom even quicker. Both Davis, a sophomore, and Abiamiri, a senior, have good speed for their size. The thought of linebackers trying to cover them is one of the many things that makes Friedgen smile these days. Junior Derek Miller, a 6-8, 258-pound blocking hulk, is the more traditional tight end and part of what should be a solid line. Three starters, including senior center Kyle Schmitt and the entire left side, senior All-ACC guard C.J. Brooks and junior Stephon Heyer, return. The questions are on the right side, where redshirt freshman Andrew Crummey emerged at guard and senior Lou Lombardo must fend off a challenge from huge (6-5, 337) redshirt freshman Brandon Nixon at tackle. Elsewhere along the line, depth is a serious concern. That's not the case at receiver, where nagging injuries this spring could end up being a blessing in disguise. Big-play guys Steve Suter and Derrick Fenner return at the ends, and Rich Parson is back in the slot. Some minor bumps and bruises to the regulars, though, allowed lots of work for Jo Jo Walker, Drew Weatherly, Paschal Abiamiri and Dan Melendez (before he went down with a broken leg) and a chance to develop interchangeable pieces at the three positions. Another area of strength should be the kicking game, a factor that could mitigate some of the problems of working in so many new faces elsewhere. First-team All-ACC kicker Nick Novak, who hit 24 of 32 field goals last year as a junior, is back along with second-team All-ACC punter Adam Podlesh, who averaged 42.3 yards per boot as a freshman in 2003. Suter, who had six scores on punt returns over the last two years, ensures a quality return squad. Likewise, the defense, virtually dismantled on paper with the loss of eight starters, could be surprisingly strong. Defensive coordinator Gary Blackney has done a masterful job in his three seasons of hiding the unit's weaknesses and accentuating its strengths. The positives entering the 2004 season revolve around the return of Butkus Award candidate D'Qwell Jackson at middle linebacker and fast-improving sophomore Shawne Merriman at Leo, Blackney's hybrid rush end position. The smallish Jackson is a sideline-to-sideline defender, and Merriman was virtually unblockable by season's end last year, with his combination of power and speed. Jackson missed a lot of spring work with a hamstring injury, a development that opened the door for redshirt freshman Tim Cesa to enjoy an outstanding camp. Similarly, senior cornerback Rueben Haigler missed nearly all of the spring with a groin injury, but that allowed youngsters Gerrick McPhearson and Josh Wilson to get more reps. That could make the suspect secondary stronger in the long run. Senior Dominique Foxworth, one of the best cover men in the ACC, is back at the other corner. New safeties Raymond Custis and Chris Kelley were both spring standouts, although there's not much behind them. The Terps will have two new starters up front in sophomores Rob Armstrong and Conrad Bolston, who acquitted themselves well at defensive tackle. Merriman and a bigger/stronger Kevin Eli (6-4, 268) return at the ends, but there will be new linebackers behind them, likely sophomore David Holloway on the strong side and either William Kershaw or highly touted redshirt freshman Wesley Jefferson on the weak side. Friedgen obviously enjoyed the tenor of the competition this spring among the many returnees who saw opportunities for additional playing time. Several coaches said they respected the way the kids put pressure on themselves to work hard and improve. "There's an expectation that wasn't here before," Friedgen said. "They want to be good. When I talk in terms of youth, they don't really want to hear that. There's going to be some growing pains that you go through, but they're learning experiences. Last year's team was much more veteran than this year's, but when you have a young team it creates a lot of excitement."
Maryland: Despite Massive Turnover, It's Difficult To Bet Against Friedgen
By Mike Ashley