July 31, 2007
COLLEGE PARK Maryland football coach Ralph Friedgen has worked diligently to build his program's offensive line depth during his seven-year tenure. But thanks to graduation, injuries and unexpected attrition, the Terrapins once again are severely depleted at the position.
Maryland graduated only one starter from last year's line, left tackle Stephon Heyer. But starting left guard Donnie Woods decided to forego his final year of eligibility, and starting right tackle Jared Gaither failed out of school.
Elsewhere, second-string right guard Garrick Clig chose to graduate with one year of eligibility remaining, while second-string right tackle Brandon Nixon also failed out.
For those counting at home, that is four members of the offensive line depth chart who should still be with the program but are not. As a result, Maryland will be forced to rely on a slew of sophomores, redshirt freshmen and perhaps even true freshmen during the 2007 season.
"We're back to square one. We're back to where we were my first few years, with seven offensive linemen," Friedgen said. "I think we'll be able to patch together a decent starting unit, but depth is a major concern. We need to stay healthy up front, because most of the backups are young and inexperienced."
The ACC Sports Journal revealed in May that Gaither's academic situation was far worse than Friedgen or anyone else involved with the program wanted to admit publicly. The Sports Journal wrote that it was very likely that Gaither would wind up declaring for the NFL's supplemental draft, which is exactly what happened.
Gaither, who was declared ineligible for 2007 in late June, was selected by the Baltimore Ravens and is expected to make the team.
While the mainstream media apparently was unaware of the severity of Gaither's troubles, Friedgen knew the 6-9, 324-pounder was a longshot to suit up for the Terps this season. However, the coach was caught off-guard by Woods, who announced late last season that he would not play as a fifth-year senior.
At the time, Woods said he was leaving the program in order to embark on a military career. The 6-3, 289-pound Florida product sounded very patriotic as he talked about the war in Iraq and the need for more soldiers.
Numerous news outlets jumped on the story of a big-time college football player giving up his final year of eligibility in order to serve his country, and Woods was more than willing to talk about his reasons for wanting to join the U.S. Army. Among the most compelling was the fact that his older brother, Sean Woods, had served two tours in Iraq.
"It was an easy decision for me," Woods told the Washington Post, prior to Maryland's appearance in the Champs Sports Bowl. "I know what I stand for. I know what this country stands for. I'm willing to sacrifice to fight for this country, to do what I think is right. That's what I feel, and I feel strongly about it."
It turned out that Woods' initial plan didn't unfold as stated. Friedgen revealed during the ACC Kickoff that Woods did not pass the ROTC program and still had not graduated from Maryland.
"He didn't pass anything this spring. He's out of school," Friedgen told the Baltimore Sun. "I thought he was going to get his degree and go into the service as an officer, but he got his grades and didn't do very well."
That news did not come as a surprise to some members of the media, who had spoken privately with members of Woods' family last season and heard a slightly different story for why the lineman was leaving the program. Brian Woods, another older brother, said Donnie had reservations about how Maryland football was run and some of the decisions made by the coaching staff.
It should be noted that Woods was airlifted from the field and taken to the Maryland Shock Trauma Center after suffering a neck injury against Miami last season. He may have been spooked by that incident and reportedly was a bit anxious about returning to the trenches afterward.
While Friedgen seemed annoyed that Woods had not followed through on his stated plans, it really doesn't matter much now. Developing some quality offensive line depth will be a major focus of preseason practice, and the coaching staff is hoping that youngsters such as sophomore center Phil Costa, redshirt freshman guard Evan Eastburn and redshirt freshman tackle Paul Pinegar develop quickly.
Truth be told, Friedgen also is hoping that at least two true freshmen can impact the depth chart. Bruce Campbell, a massive 6-7, 285-pound offensive tackle who spent last year at Hargrave Military Academy, is the most likely newcomer to contribute right away.
Maurice Hampton (6-5, 295) of Virginia and Bearthur Johnson (6-7, 350) of New Jersey are two others who pass the eye test. Stephen St. John (6-6, 285) of South Carolina and Lamar Young (6-4, 285) of Georgia round out a highly touted offensive line class that looks promising on paper.
JENNINGS PURSUIT WORTH WATCHING
Maryland basketball coach Gary Williams has mostly avoided recruiting players with questionable academic backgrounds during his 17-year tenure.
It's not that the coach has never signed prospects who barely met NCAA minimums every school in the ACC, and almost every one in major college basketball, does that to one degree or another but rather that the coach usually will walk away from even outstanding talents if their academic credentials don't pass the smell test.
Williams doesn't like to deal with the baggage that often comes with those types of players, and he knows first-hand that Maryland's admissions department carefully scrutinizes questionable transcripts.
So it came as no surprise when word arrived from the basketball staff that the Terrapins probably could not touch talented big man Terrence Jennings, who attended three high schools in as many years. Assistant coach Chuck Driesell had developed a solid relationship with Jennings, but the player's checkered academic history initially put him "out of range" for the Terps.
Nonetheless, Driesell remained in touch with Jennings, and that may prove to be a productive decision. An athletic 6-10 center, Jennings apparently has made a remarkable comeback in the classroom. After playing for tiny Charis Prep in North Carolina when Maryland first made contact, Jennings reportedly improved his grades dramatically after transferring to Mount Zion Christian Academy in Durham, N.C.
Some red flags remain e.g., there have been times when some league coaches stopped recruiting at Mt. Zion, despite its location in the middle of ACC country but Jennings appreciated that Maryland did not back off, as numerous others did.
If Jennings' upgraded credentials ultimately get the stamp of approval from Maryland officials, the Terps' loyalty on the recruiting trail may pay off big.
Now that Jennings is much closer to becoming an academic qualifier, his national stock has risen, and he is hearing from such programs as Arizona and Illinois. However, he wants to play in the ACC and has told various recruiting analysts that he favors the Terrapins. That could prove a coup for Williams, who often has struggled to land prep prospects with obvious NBA talent.
While still somewhat raw, Jennings is a tremendous talent who has drawn comparisons to current Phoenix Suns star Amare Stoudemire. A California native, Jennings is an explosive run-jump athlete who clearly could be a difference-maker at the college level.
The word entering August was that Jennings was taking summer-school courses in order to further polish his transcript. He has not been accepted at Maryland yet, though, so there is still work to be done.
Jennings reminds many of former Maryland star Chris Wilcox, both athletically and academically. Wilcox also was an explosive big man with questionable grades, but the Terps stuck with him when many others backed off. That diligence eventually paid dividends, as Wilcox wound up a key part of the national championship team.
With Jennings, it seems that Williams is hoping to catch lightning in a bottle for a second time.