October 11, 2005
COLLEGE PARK - Maryland may not have a great tailback on its 2005 roster, but it does have three pretty good ones. The Terrapins don't have a single big-time wide receiver, but they can trot out three very respectable ones.
None of the team's fullbacks would be considered premier, but as a rotating trio they are quite effective. How many teams in the country have used five tight ends to date?
Maryland's offense is finding strength in numbers this season, with the coaching staff using multiple players at numerous positions. That philosophy has a way of creating competition in practice while building morale, since so many players are getting playing time and contributing.
"Any time you can have depth, it's a positive. You can shuttle people in and out of the lineup and keep people fresh," coach Ralph Friedgen said. "Right now, we're getting good performances out of a lot of different kids. It's a very encouraging thing to see."
Tailback has been the most visible display of the trend, with Mario Merrills, Lance Ball and Keon Lattimore all seeing significant action and performing well at times. Merrills rushed for a career-high 149 yards against Navy, while Ball gained a career-high 163 versus Virginia. Lattimore was the main man in the win over Wake Forest with 76 yards, while Merrills suddenly reappeared at Temple with a team-high 66 yards and three touchdowns.
What's most remarkable is that all three backs probably would be on the bench if last year's starter (Josh Allen) was healthy.
"I think it's a good thing that we have three good running backs," Friedgen said. "We can give them all some reps, then keep working the hot back."
At this point, Maryland does not have a clear starter at tailback, with Friedgen and coordinator Charlie Taaffe making that decision based on practice performances each week.
It's a similar situation at fullback, where Ricardo Dickerson, Tim Cesa and Matt Deese all are seeing time. Coaches feel each has his strengths and weaknesses and are inserting them situationally. Cesa is the strongest and most physical, and Dickerson executes his assignments the best, while Deese is the only natural fullback and is thus a better runner-receiver. Individually, none of the fullbacks is anything special, but as a group they are solid.
Maryland does not have one go-to receiver, that big and fast target who can stretch the field and go over the top of cornerbacks for 50-50 balls. However, the Terps finally are getting decent production out of the position by spreading the ball around and better utilizing each receiver's strengths.
Senior Danny Melendez has emerged after doing very little during his first three seasons in College Park. The slightly built 6-2, 179-pounder had a career day against Virginia, with nine catches for 125 yards and a touchdown. Melendez, who isn't listed as a starter, leads Maryland wideouts with 24 catches.
Jo Jo Walker and Derrick Fenner aren't far behind with 21 and 18 receptions, respectively. Drew Weatherly also has contributed, hauling in a clutch TD pass against Navy.
Friedgen also praised the receivers for their blocking versus Virginia, saying their efforts on the perimeter and downfield was crucial to Maryland gaining a season-high 250 yards on the ground.
"Their blocking for the running game was, without question, the best we've had since I've been here with the wide receivers," Friedgen said. "It's been a hard thing for us to get them to do for a long time."
Maryland has one of the finest pass-catching tight ends in the country in Vernon Davis, who has been virtually unstoppable this season. "The Duke" already has 24 receptions for a team-high 490 yards and three touchdowns.
Meanwhile, three other tight ends - Dan Gronkowski, Joey Haynos and Jason Goode - also have caught passes. Friedgen has called Derek Miller one of the best blocking tight ends in the league, a statement supported by the fact that he stepped in as the team's starting tackle for the initial three games of the season.
Maryland even is using multiple players along the offensive line, which isn't always a good policy. Once again, though, it's a case of players being virtually even and thus deserving an opportunity to get into the game.
Perhaps the best example of the platoon system has come at center, where Ryan McDonald and Edwin Williams are splitting time. Friedgen praised McDonald's performance against Virginia, while Williams earned kudos for his efforts versus Wake.
RECEIVERS RESPONDING TO BOSSARD
Friedgen recently called Maryland's receivers "by far the most improved group of players on the team." He said the wideouts have stepped up every aspect of their games, from blocking to route-running to catching.
Statistics show the improvement, as the Terps' top three receivers combined for 63 catches through six games. Last season's top three receivers - Fenner, Steve Suter and Rich Parson - totaled only 80 receptions in 11 games.
Friedgen credits first-year receivers coach Bryan Bossard for the dramatic improvement. Bossard, who came to Maryland following a three-year stint at Delaware, apparently has developed a better connection with his unit than predecessor James Franklin. Other coaches have noticed that the older receivers, particularly Melendez and Fenner, have responded better to Bossard than to Franklin, now the receivers coach with the Green Bay Packers.
"Coach Bossard has been a blessing for us and helped our receiver corps get better every week," Walker said. "We just want to go out there and play with our hearts for him."
Obviously, improved quarterback play also has helped the passing game. Sam Hollenbach is completing 65.3 percent of his passes and making the receivers look good with well-thrown balls. That certainly was not the case a year ago with Joel Statham.
SURPRISES, ANGER TOPPLED VIRGINIA
After Maryland piled up a season-high 570 yards in its 45-33 upset of Virginia, Friedgen credited Taaffe with unveiling some new wrinkles.
Taaffe threw Virginia some curves by passing out of running formations and running with passing personnel in the game. The Terrapins did things the UVa coaches had not seen on film up to that point, and the result was a break-out performance by an offense that had been struggling somewhat.
"I thought the passing game might have set up the run. I thought Charlie did a great job of not only mixing up the run and pass, but also switching up personnel groups and formations," Friedgen said. "I felt he kept people guessing about what we were doing."
Offensive line coach Tom Brattan motivated his unit by bringing in newspaper clippings that criticized Maryland's blocking to date. Brattan hinted that the Virginia coaches were behind the bad-mouthing of the Terps' offensive line and struggling running game.
By far the biggest motivation apparently did come courtesy of the UVa coaches themselves. They reportedly sent some recruits tapes of their victory over Maryland last season. Attached was a note that said, "You want to play for Maryland?"
"I didn't like what I was hearing and reading," Maryland guard Donnie Woods said. "But when the recruits said that they got the tapes, I was really ticked off. I wanted to rip somebody's head off. I couldn't wait to open some big holes for our backs to run through."