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Maryland: Hunger, Defense Behind Rebound Plan

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

By Mike Ashley
ACCSports.com

April 25, 2005 COLLEGE PARK — Maryland had a long time this winter to rest up and get ready for spring practice. After missing a bowl game for the first time since coach Ralph Friedgen took over the program in 2001, the Terps were rested and ready come April. Best of all, according to the coach, they also were hungry. Hunger is something last year's 5-6 Maryland team may have lacked, after three consecutive bowl appearances and a 31-8 three-year record under Friedgen. "We had probably our best winter since I've been here," Friedgen said. "I'm very, very pleased where our team is from a mental standpoint and from a physical standpoint. I think they have the hunger back. I think they're excited about playing, and they've worked extremely hard." Friedgen may have needed the extra time this winter, too. He put together his longest and most football-centric offseason to-do list since his first season back in College Park, when he took an unheralded group to the ACC title. The list for the spring included finding a quarterback, developing a replacement for tailback Josh Allen (out for 2005 with a knee injury), rebuilding the offensive line after the loss of three starters, establishing depth at receiver, replacing three starters in the secondary, identifying a replacement for Shawne Merriman at defensive end, rebuilding the entire defensive line, building depth at linebacker, and finding replacements for kicker Nick Novak and snapper Jon Condo. First things first, though. The Terrapins feel they have their groove back attitude-wise, after dropping five of their last seven games. A couple of returnees described last year's team as "clique-ish," and togetherness was a theme this spring. "I think this year there's a focus on togetherness right from the get-go," said junior punter Adam Podlesh, an All-ACC player. "I think last year we kind of took that for granted and now we know. People may not pick us very high this year (based on last year's finish), but they didn't pick us very high the year we went to the Orange Bowl, either." The 2005 Maryland team still has a load of questions to resolve, although there were some encouraging developments in the spring. Junior quarterback Sam Hollenbach, the starter by default in the 2004 finale win over Wake Forest, apparently solidified his grip on the job simply by helping the Terrapins keep a grip on the ball. The bad news: The coaches weren't exactly thrilled with his competition. Maryland was ninth in the ACC with a minus-nine turnover differential last fall. Fifteen turnovers came on interceptions from quarterback Joel Statham, who started 10 games and had a penchant for leaving the ball on the ground when running the option. Statham has looked steadier and is more athletic than Hollenbach, but heading to the fall the job looks like Hollenbach's to lose. The coaches like the coach's son's poise, and they especially like that he doesn't make big mistakes. Sophomore Jordan Steffy still holds tremendous promise, but he dropped out of the picture when injuries shelved him for most of the spring. Fourth-stringer Ryan Mitch left the program. "The one thing at quarterback is that they all have experience," said Friedgen, who said he'll go with the quarterback who puts the ball in the end zone most frequently. "They all know the offense better. I expect them all to be better than they were last year." There are other issues offensively, especially with Allen out after suffering a knee injury in the 2004 regular-season finale. The would-be senior has accounted for more than 1,800 yards and 23 touchdowns in his career. He will be missed, likely forcing Friedgen to use a tailback-by-committee
approach. Little-used senior Mario Merrills has the edge for the starting job, over sophomore Lance Ball. Another sophomore, highly touted Keon Lattimore, didn't show much this spring while battling ankle and knee injuries. Junior J.P. Humber also has promise, but he sat out the entire spring after shoulder surgery. Seniors Derrick Fenner and Jo Jo Walker headline the thin receiving corps. Walker had a solid spring, emerging as a team leader. Fenner has been the team's most reliable deep threat over the past two seasons, but he had just two touchdowns last year, owing to the plethora of problems in the passing game. Many of those ills stemmed from inexperience among the receivers, with players running poor routes, making bad reads or simply not catching the ball. Junior tight end Vernon Davis, who has future NFL star written all over him, led Maryland with three aerial scores in 2004, and the Terps hope to get the ball to him more often this fall. Hulking backup Derek Miller, a 6-8, 268-pound senior, should be among the ACC's best blockers. Senior left tackle Stephon Heyer anchors the rebuilding offensive line. A third-year starter, the
6-6, 321-pound Heyer is primed for a big year, and the Terrapins will rely on him to put the smash-mouth back in their running game. There are significant holes, but improving depth, elsewhere up front. Friedgen has admitted that he and offensive coordinator Charlie Taaffe probably got too cute with their plays last year at times. "We're changing some things in the offensive line from what we've done in the past to take advantage of some of our linemen, who are not only very big but very athletic," Friedgen said. "We need to get back to running the ball, and our guys all like that." If Maryland's offense can go back to controlling the clock and improve on last year's paltry 17.7 points per game (a Friedgen Era low), recent history indicates that the Terrapins can be pretty good again. That's because defensive coordinator Gary Blackney's unit is almost always up to the task. Sure, Blackney lost Merriman, three starters up front and three starters in the secondary, but the defensive whiz has done more with less many times during his tenure in College Park. Maryland's not lacking for quality candidates in the secondary, where several young players have been biding their time, and the line may be the deepest it has been on Blackney's watch. The linebacker corps, even without All-ACC D'Qwell Jackson (wrist surgery) this spring, again looks solid. Jackson's absence opened the door for more players to see time and gain experience. Senior William Kershaw excelled along with two juniors at other positions, cornerback Josh Wilson and tackle Conrad Bolston. If the front doesn't generate enough pressure, something Merriman manufactured almost single-handedly, look for more blitzes, particularly if the secondary shows it can hold up in man-to-man coverage. On special teams, junior walk-on Dan Ennis has a leg up on touted freshman Obi Egekeze to replace Novak, Maryland's all-time scoring leader. Meanwhile, sophomore Tim Cesa struggled at long snapper, an area of concern heading into the fall. Friedgen never tired this spring of reminding everyone how young his team is going into next season. Maryland has just 12 seniors and 15 juniors. Fifty-eight other players in the program have at least three years of eligibility remaining. The youth reminds the coach of when he first took over the Terps four years ago. "The difference is, we've got players who have been in the system," Friedgen said. "And they tell me they didn't like not going to a bowl game last year. This is a big challenge. We've got a lot of holes to fill. But the biggest thing I like is how together this team is. When you've got that, you can accomplish a lot." Spring 2005 Overview

The PooP One 5-6 season shouldn't make anyone jump off the bandwagon of fifth-year coach Ralph Friedgen. In his first three years at his alma mater, he somehow managed to build an outstanding staff, win an ACC title (2001), post the first consecutive 10-win seasons in school history (then add a third), go to the Orange, Peach and Gator bowls, compile a 19-1 home record, earn consensus national coach of the year honors (2001), direct back-to-back school scoring records, help increase season-ticket sales, upgrade recruiting and revolutionize the program's approach to facilities, technology and who knows what else. The Fridge again appears to have second-tier talent and a shortage of stars entering 2005, but that hasn't always stopped him in the past.

Probable 2005 Starters

Offense

Pos. Name Ht./Wt. Class
QB Sam Hollenbach 6-5/217 Jr.*
RB Mario Merrills 5-10/202 Sr.*
FB Ricardo Dickerson 6-1/251 Sr.*
WR Jo Jo Walker 5-9/171 Sr.
WR Derrick Fenner^ 5-11/191 Sr.*
TE Vernon Davis^ 6-3/250 Jr.
LT Stephon Heyer^ 6-6/321 Sr.
LG Donnie Woods 6-3/291 So.*
OC Andrew Crummey 6-5/292 So.*
RG Russell Bonham 6-2/315 Sr.*
RT Brandon Nixon 6-6/310 So.*
PK Dan Ennis 6-0/151 Jr.*

Defense

DE Jack Griffin 6-6/267 So.
DT Rob Armstrong+ 6-4/314 Jr.
DT Conrad Bolston^ 6-3/284 Jr.
DE Jermaine Lemons 6-1/248 So.*
LB David Holloway^ 6-2/222 Jr.*
LB D'Qwell Jackson^+ 6-0/225 Sr.
LB William Kershaw^ 6-3/227 Sr.
SS Marcus Wimbush 5-11/205 Jr.*
FS Christian Varner+ 5-11/195 So.
CB Gerrick McPhearson^ 5-10/194 Sr.*
CB Josh Wilson 5-9/183 Jr.
P Adam Podlesh^ 5-11/193 Jr.*
* – redshirted ^ – six/more 2004 starts
+ – injured/missed spring drills

Coming On Strong The Terps' linebackers aren't the most physically imposing group, but several are lightning-quick, and the entire defense (especially the linebackers) is extremely well-coached by coordinator Gary Blackney. Several youngsters whose names aren't yet well-known seem ready to contribute in 2005. Rock-solid returning starters: TE Vernon Davis, LT Stephon Heyer, LB D'Qwell Jackson, LB William Kershaw, CB Gerrick McPhearson, P Adam Podlesh. Also looking good: LB Erin Henderson, LB Wesley Jefferson, WR Danny Melendez, RB Mario Merrills, RT Brandon Nixon, CB Josh Wilson.

Cause For Concern? As Maryland and others proved last season, the one place where no team can afford erratic play is at quarterback. There are plenty of candidates, each with his own strengths and weaknesses, but everyone knows the old saying: Teams with two or three potential starters at QB usually don't have even one who's ready to produce at a high level. If that doesn't change in August, it'll be hard to consider the Terps a serious contender. Also: tailback, wide receiver, young/rebuilt offensive line, defensive line, revamped secondary, new kicker, new deep snapper, new return men.

On The Sidelines The following players missed all or most of spring drills: RB Josh Allen (knee), RB J.P. Humber (shoulder), LB D'Qwell Jackson (wrist), QB Jordan Steffy (arm, knee), FS Christian Varner (ankle).

Spring Cleaning The following scholarship athletes left the program in the last 12 months with eligibility remaining: OL Brock Choate, DB Chris Choice, DT Justin Duffie (medical), OL Robert Jenkins (academics), DE Shawne Merriman (NFL draft), QB Ryan Mitch, OL Matt Powell (chose to graduate), DE Patrick Powell (transfer).