April 11, 2005
COLLEGE PARK That Sam Hollenbach was trotted out to meet with the media as part of the pre-spring practice press conference showed the unsettled nature of Maryland's quarterback situation.
Joel Statham was the Terrapins' season-long starter in 2004, when freshman Jordan Steffy got a lot of quality game time as the backup. Hollenbach, meanwhile, did not play a meaningful minute until being pressed into action against Virginia Tech in the 10th game of the season.
Hollenbach wound up starting the finale versus Wake Forest and performed fairly
well in a
13-7 victory. The redshirt junior was seriously contemplating a transfer toward the end of last season. Now, he's suddenly atop the depth chart.
"I was pleased with how Sam played in those last two games. He showed poise, made some big plays and didn't do anything to hurt us," Friedgen said. "One of the things that has always been his problem has been confidence. I'm hoping the way he came through in the clutch in the Wake game will boost his confidence."
It's also an indication of how far Statham has fallen in the eyes of the Maryland coaches. He struggled mightily as a first-time starter, tossing 15 interceptions and committing at least a dozen fumbles. Despite being by far the most experienced signal-caller in the stable, Statham entered spring practice third on the depth chart, behind Hollenbach and Steffy.
"I haven't totally given up on Joel because of the way he practices," Friedgen said, "but he needs to stop turning the ball over in games."
Friedgen stood up for Statham throughout the player's up-and-down redshirt sophomore campaign. However, that support waned after the 6-1, 220-pounder still looked like a deer in the headlights in November, throwing three first-half interceptions and generally making bad decisions in the 55-6 loss to the Hokies.
It was difficult for Friedgen to make a quarterback change when Statham continually outperformed both Steffy and Hollenbach in practice. However, it was painfully obvious after three months that Statham simply could not translate his practice success on game day.
Hollenbach, on the other hand, might be one of those quarterbacks who performs better in games than in practice. He has been tutored since boyhood by his father Jeff, a former quarterback at Illinois and head coach at Pennridge High in Pennsylvania.
While one and a half games is not enough to draw any conclusions, Hollenbach was heady, calm and decisive in completing 16 of 27 passes for 164 yards against Wake. Most importantly, he did not make many mental mistakes or commit any turnovers.
The 6-5, 217-pound Hollenbach is more of a pocket-type quarterback than either Statham or Steffy, and he is not as much of a running threat in the option game. That might be a good thing, considering how many times the Terps botched the option last season.
Many observers still consider Steffy the quarterback of the future, as he may be the team's most gifted player at that position in terms of athleticism and arm strength. He played in six games as a true freshman and put up modest statistics.
Steffy underwent minor knee surgery in the offseason, but he decided against having surgery to correct a nerve problem in his arm. He was limited in spring drills as a result of some arthritis-related soreness in the repaired knee, a potentially chronic injury that coaches alarmingly compared to that of former wide receiver and return man Steve Suter.
"Jordan is quick and elusive," Friedgen said, "but needs to learn how to ignore the rush and hang in the pocket."
After Steffy aggravated his knee problem on April 7 and subsequently missed more practice time, a reporter asked Friedgen if the player's time on the sidelines was going to hamper his chances of becoming the starter.
"He's hardly at practice," Friedgen snapped. "How's he going to play?"
Friedgen declared the quarterback competition "wide-open," but he added that he was eager to have a definitive pecking order by the end of spring camp.
"I am hoping we will be better as a group," he said. "I am counting on all of them benefiting from the game experience they got last year. I am going to put a lot of stock in how each one moves the team in scrimmage situations."
Maryland's quarterback derby thinned a bit when Ryan Mitch decided to leave the program. The former DeMatha Catholic star, who was talked out of quitting last fall, plans to remain in school at College Park.
Tailback Merrills Ready To Shine?
Mario Merrills is getting his chance to show he can be the Terps' featured tailback, and Friedgen thinks the senior could have a break-out campaign in 2005.
Maryland lost leading rusher Sammy Maldonado to graduation, while season-long 2004 starter Josh Allen will sit out this season to recover from reconstructive knee surgery.
Some fans may remember that Merrills had an opportunity to seize the starting job as a redshirt freshman, after Bruce Perry went down with an injury. Merrills rushed for a career-high 79 yards on 17 carries against Akron, but he fell out of favor (along with classmate Jason Crawford) after complaining about not getting enough carries against Florida State.
Seldom-used senior Chris Downs then earned the starting job, and he wound up rushing for 1,154 yards on the season. Merrills played in only four games as a sophomore and was third-string last season, but Friedgen said he has the potential to emerge a la Downs.
"Right now, Mario is the fastest, strongest, most experienced back we have," Friedgen said. "He's been in the program four years. If he's going to blossom, now is the time to do it."
Merrills is an Iron Terp, with the highest strength index among the running backs. He put up terrific numbers in preseason testing, running the 40-yard dash in 4.42 seconds, bench pressing 400 pounds, squat lifting 580 and vertical leaping 38 inches.
Those squat and vertical figures were both the third-best ever recorded by a Maryland running back. Merrills always has had the physical ability, but he needs to stop missing assignments and fumbling the football.
"I think the comparison to Chris Downs is on the money, because he's a hard worker just like me," said Merrills, who roomed with Downs in 2002. "I've gotten better each year and feel I have greater focus now. I'm not going to make any more mental mistakes."
Many feel Keon Lattimore will provide the stiffest challenge to Merrills. The younger brother of Baltimore Ravens All-Pro linebacker Ray Lewis, Lattimore came back from a dislocated shoulder in 2004 to appear in five games as a true freshman. He got only 14 carries, not enough to show the cutback ability and shake that has his coaches excited.
Sophomore Lance Ball also is in the mix, but junior J.P. Humber is sitting out the spring with an injury.
Both Lines, Secondary Rebuilding
Maryland has numerous other holes to fill. The Terps lost three starters along both the offensive and defensive lines, three starters in the secondary and a standout placekicker.
Friedgen likes the size and ability of the team's young offensive linemen, such as sophomores Andrew Crummey (6-5, 292), Brandon Nixon (6-6, 310), Donnie Woods (6-3, 291), Scott Burley (6-6, 315) and Garrick Clig (6-3, 296), along with redshirt freshmen Jaime Thomas (6-5, 333), Dane Randolph (6-5, 276) and Edwin Williams (6-4, 319).
After suffering a remarkable rate of attrition for many years, Maryland finally is developing some depth in its blocking unit.
Crummey, who started five games at right guard as a redshirt freshman, has been moved to center to replace Kyle Schmitt. Offensive line coach Tom Brattan believes Crummey is quick and athletic enough to play the position. Nixon, who got one start last season and played considerably, will try to take over for Lou Lombardo at right tackle.
Woods, who finally is fully recovered from the major reconstructive knee surgery he underwent as a high school senior, is a tenacious and aggressive type who will get the first crack at replacing C.J. Brooks at left guard. Bonham is listed as a returning starter, although he started just four games at right guard in 2004.
Senior Stephon Heyer, who has played in all 37 of Maryland's games over the past three seasons and has made 25 consecutive starts at left tackle, will anchor a unit that Friedgen feels has great potential.
"I think we're going to have a very good offensive line, we're just very young," Friedgen said. "We have changed some things from what we have done in the past on offense in order to take advantage of the fact that we have linemen who are not only very big, but also real athletic."
Meanwhile, if you wonder why so many college football coaches are reluctant to award scholarships to kickers, look no further than Maryland's current situation.
Fourth-year walk-on Dan Ennis has dramatically out-performed touted 2004 recruit Obi Egekeze during spring drills. Ennis does not have a strong leg, but he has been far more consistent than Egekeze, whose technique needs a lot of refining.
Friedgen also is very concerned about finding a long snapper to replace Jon Condo, who was outstanding in that role for three seasons. Fullback-linebacker Tim Cesa is trying to master the discipline, but many are betting that incoming recruits Tommy and Dwight Galt will wind up battling for the starting job in August.
Defensively, Maryland does not have a ready-made replacement for departing junior Shawne Merriman, who declared early for the NFL draft. Redshirt sophomore Jermaine Lemons, who has done little to distinguish himself so far, will try to win the starting job at dropback defensive end, a hybrid position that combines pass-rushing and run-stopping with coverage skills.
While the secondary seems decimated on paper, there is actually a fair amount of experience, since cornerbacks Gerrick McPhearson and Josh Wilson along with safety Christian Varner all started some games in 2004.