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Miracle Season Behind Him, Friedgen Facing Familiar Challenges

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

  By Christian Ewell, Baltimore (Md.) Sun
August 20, 2002

COLLEGE PARK - It wasn't so long ago when reporters at the ACC's media retreat circled an ampler Ralph Friedgen - preparing for his first season as a head coach - regarded him like so much lukewarm okra and then moved on to other coaches more worthy of their time.

Now that the Maryland head coach has lost around 40 pounds as part of a fund-raising scheme, and there are fewer pieces of him to go around, everybody wants one.

At that same league function last month, the coach held court amongst a crowd relative to the one-on-one conversations available to him last year, probably a product of a 10-2 record during his head coaching debut, and the Terrapins' first ACC title since 1985.

Chances are as much as not that Friedgen will be away from the College Park campus. He's usually off trying to find more money or visibility for the school's football program, which has only begun amassing the resources equal to its peers and had been off the map with only one winning season from 1990-2000.

"So many demands on my time," Friedgen said recently, fresh off a trip out of town to consult a national sports network on its college football coverage. "It's taken me away from the team."

Players ask him where he's been, and he apologizes for not being around more, but he also points out that the new attention allows Friedgen and the football program to say gimme, gimme, gimme when it comes to the facilities Maryland football has wanted for in the past.

The practice fields are being re-done, and the team tramples over the baseball field's outfield in the meantime - an allowance you don't get when you're 5-6. There's a new scoreboard and video board. Inside the Gossett Team House there are new offices and an academic center, with a dining hall and an auditorium to come. A rather pedestrian scoreboard display at Byrd Stadium last year will become a what-more-do-you-want scoreboard and a Jumbotron this fall.

Much of this has been on the drawing board for some time, dating back to the early days of the last coach, Ron Vanderlinden, but that's where the plans remained during a 15-29 record. The hopes didn't become a certainty until the success of 2001.

Said assistant coach and recruiting coordinator Mike Locksley, a holdover from Vanderlinden's staff: "When you win, a lot of things take place. ... For us to compete at a championship level, we have to have what the top teams have."

The major question is whether the Terrapins can continue to compete at that championship level this season. At face value, it seems likely. Sixteen of the team's returning starters played in the Orange Bowl, including the ACC's players of the year on offense and defense, tailback Bruce Perry and linebacker E.J. Henderson. Tougher questions remain beneath the surface.

With a better understanding of the offense Friedgen used at Georgia Tech (as executed currently by Maryland offensive coordinator Charlie Taaffe), the return of Perry and an improved corps of receivers, it would not be surprising to see a team less dependent on the defense than it was during the early part of the season.

At the same time, Perry still suffers from an abdominal injury that bugged him last December and caused him to miss spring practice. Friedgen proclaimed his dwindling patience with the star performer during the early parts of preseason drills, a luxury afforded by the team's best group of tailbacks in recent years. But while redshirt freshman Mario Merrills and senior Chris Downs have impressed coaches and sophomore Jason Crawford showed potential last year, it would be hard to replace Perry's 1,242 rushing yards and 40
receptions.

The gaping hole on offense comes in the exchange from center to quarterback. Melvin Fowler played in 45 straight games at center - sophomore Kyle Schmitt takes over this fall - while quarterback Shaun Hill emerged toward the end of the year as one of the most valuable players in the ACC. Some say Fowler is a big loss, particularly in terms of leadership and knowing what line calls to make. Others say Fowler had to leave some day, and Schmitt is ready to take over after being groomed for much of last season.

At quarterback, it's not enough that Maryland loses Hill, who passed for 2,380 yards and 13 touchdowns last season while rushing for another 309. The question isn't whether it's possible to replace Hill. The Terps haven't yet figured out who will replace him.

Friedgen originally said the QB battle would be sorted out within the first 10 days of fall camp. But the battle became complicated when sophomore Chris Kelley recovered from an ACL tear in his right knee in three months, making it possible for him to compete with former West Virginia player and junior Scott McBrien. Kelley's athleticism is a plus, and it's tough to bet against a player who has recovered from three serious knee injuries in as many seasons. That said, McBrien has game experience at the college level and he is eliminating the one rap against him - his proficiency in the option skills integral to Friedgen's offense.

On the line, the starters are, minus Fowler, as they were for 10 of 12 games in 2001. The veteran unit is anchored by left guard Todd Wike, who earned first-team All-ACC honors last season. Returning starters Wike, right tackle Matt Crawford and right guard Lamar Bryant all had starts from the 2000 season, as well.

Health is the main factor in this unit's success. Reserve guard Reggie Kemp recently left the team, and backup center Jason Holman won't play this season because of academics. That left Eric Dumas, Lou Lombardo and Ed Tyler as the only experienced backups. Redshirt freshman Russell Bonham and true freshman Stephon Heyer also hope to contribute.

With whomever Friedgen puts out there at tailback, Maryland is happy with what it has, and wishes for more production from its fullbacks. James Lynch is the best of the group, but he recently was grief-stricken with the death of his mother, and his performance in summer classes made his availability for this fall uncertain. Chad Killian has started in spots and is one of the team's better athletes, as is Bernie Fiddler.

In the passing game, the move of 6-3, 219-pound Latrez Harrison from quarterback to wide receiver gave the Terrapins three rangy receivers (with 6-2 Jafar Williams and Scooter Monroe) on the outside, while smaller slotbacks Rich Parson and Steve Suter offer more speed than the team has had recently. Tight end Jeff Dugan will start again this season, as he has since he began his career at Maryland.

On defense, the Terps struggled mightily in the secondary for the first three years of Tony Okanlawon, Tony Jackson and Randall Jones, only to thrive in 2001 with Okanlawon and Jackson earning All-ACC honors. Now they're gone, with Curome Cox as the lone starting defensive back returning. Like everywhere else, though, Maryland seems a lot less concerned about its starters than its reserves.

The coaching staff continues to rave about junior Madieu Williams, a player who - despite having great potential - never really dominated the Patriot League at I-AA Towson before transferring. He will step in at free safety and could play at either corner as well. He'll be paired with strong safety Dennard Wilson, who has found a happy home after being a bit off last year at cornerback in Okanlawon's absence. Dominique Foxworth burnt his redshirt in the last two weeks of the 2001 regular season, but he played well in the Clemson game - his first start and first appearance - and is probably the one defensive back with the fewest question marks.

Among the linebackers, Maryland has perhaps the best defensive player in the country in Henderson, if he's healthy. After recording 150 tackles last season, he missed all of spring practice while having surgery on his back. If he's in full form, the team has little to worry about. If not, it will look to a true freshman at that spot.

Leon Joe started every game at outside linebacker last year as a sophomore, though there's not a whole lot of depth behind him. The competition at the other starting spot - to replace Aaron Thompson - is between Leroy Ambush and Ricardo Dickerson, in a battle of experience and physical gifts, respectively. At the rush linebacker position, Jamahl Cochran and Jon Condo came into camp as the top candidates to replace Mike Whaley, another academic casualty. But the coaching staff would be disappointed if those two aren't thwarted for that opening by true freshman Shawne Merriman, an impressive physical specimen who arrived looking like he's ready to play for the Giants.

On the line, end Durrand Roundtree (senior) and tackle C.J. Feldheim (junior) return, with Feldheim sliding over to Charles Hill's nose tackle spot. He'll be joined inside by sophomore Randy Starks, from whom a break-out year is expected. Starks was able to spell Feldheim and Hill last year. Those three are going to be on the hook for a lot of plays unless redshirt freshman Akil Patterson, senior William Shime or junior Scott Smith are able to emerge this season.

As far as special teams go, Brooks Barnard is one of the best punters in the country. Were it not for an awful start (missing nine of his first 11 field goal attempts) last season, Nick Novak might have merited all-league consideration as a placekicker.

In short, many of the question marks about Maryland heading into the season aren't too much different than they were a year ago, a statement regarding how far the program hasn't come even with last season's success. Regarding the issues of depth, particularly as the Terrapins seem naked at linebacker, Friedgen hopes that can change with recruiting.

"When you're at where you want to be, there's a natural progression," he said, hoping that early games against Akron, Eastern Michigan, Wofford and West Virginia can give younger players experience.

But there is a difference, in the money, and in what the players carry. There's a swagger when they walk around campus and a purpose when they walk into the weight room, knowing what the hard work yielded the year before. Those things are new, and they'll probably help a team that encounters talented Notre Dame and mighty Florida State in the season's first three weeks.

"We know that we can play with anyone," Wike said. "Now, it's just a matter of going out there and doing it."