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Simplified Offense Turned Team Around

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


October 20, 2003 COLLEGE PARK — It's tough being an offensive genius. So many plays, so little time to explain and practice them. Sports Illustrated made Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen the poster boy for offensive ingenuity, declaring him the nation's top play-calling mastermind in its preseason issue. That is nothing new for Friedgen, who has been dubbed an Xs and Os genius ever since his first stint at Georgia Tech under Bobby Ross.

Yet Friedgen has been frustrated in his efforts to implement more of his Yellow Pages-sized playbook at Maryland. He and offensive coordinator Charlie Taaffe have tried to expand the Terrapins' offensive repertoire in each of the past two seasons, to no avail.

Maryland was 1-2 and struggling offensively last season when Friedgen was forced to scale back his 600-page playbook and return to the basics of running the football. The Terrapins had a first-year starting quarterback in Scott McBrien, and he was having trouble reading defenses and making the proper checks at the line of scrimmage.

Friedgen and Taaffe were confident that McBrien understood the system well enough this season that they could add some more wrinkles and become more diverse. McBrien performed well during spring practice, and Taaffe talked at length about how the senior not only knew the complex attack but also could explain the hows and whys of the way it worked.

But slowly and surely this season, Friedgen and Taaffe have pulled a repeat of 2002, reducing the number of plays and packages they take into each game. Once again, McBrien's inability to make the right decisions during games led the staff to simplify things.

“The thing Scott has to do is play more consistently,” Friedgen said. “He's making plays but just missing some when he has them, too. We're trying to put him in some situations where he can be as successful as he can. What's frustrating is he does it well in practice Ö even when he goes against our (first-team) defense, he does some good things. I was watching the tape from last year and it was kinda the same type of stuff. He struggled early and then made some plays at the end.”

Opponents have decided that the best way to defend Maryland is to put eight or nine men in the box to take away the run. In essence, they are forcing McBrien to try to beat them with his arm.

In a replay of last season, McBrien struggled early, then started to turn things around when Friedgen and Taaffe eliminated some of the complex packages they had installed. The changes began after the left-hander went a woeful six-for-18, with a costly interception, against Florida State. McBrien's improvement began in the second half of the Eastern Michigan game, when he completed eight of nine passes to rally Maryland. He had another strong outing versus Clemson, then hit a career-high 18 completions against Duke. He also tossed three touchdowns in that win.

Friedgen was determined to improve Maryland's deep passing game this season, in order to stretch the field and open things up underneath. That finally has started to happen, as McBrien has begun hitting receivers such as Latrez Harrison and Derrick Fenner downfield.

One major change made by the braintrust was allowing McBrien to leave the pocket in order to find open passing lanes. The six-footer was having trouble seeing the field and thus could not go through his progressions. It was a move Friedgen made reluctantly, as rolling out the quarterback dramatically cut down on what the Terps could do route-wise.

“If the pocket gets pushed (inward), then Scott has trouble finding the lanes,” Friedgen said. “That's when he starts to scramble. He's not going to throw where he can't see where it's going.”

Eastern Michigan and Clemson both employed front-heavy alignments and pushed extra defenders up to the line of scrimmage to stop the run. The Terrapins countered by going to medium-range passes behind the safeties. The result: McBrien had four straight outings of more than 200 yards.

“When Scott's comfortable, he's pretty good,” Taaffe said. “When it's not clear to him, he hesitates and it doesn't flow for him.”

Friedgen made similar observations in the preseason, yet he still tried to expand the playbook. It was a mistake, and the coach quickly realized it. Friedgen said recently that his quarterback may be book-smart, but he doesn't have some of the natural instincts that are necessary to play the position well. McBrien does everything right during practice, but he has difficulty transferring his knowledge to games when the action speeds up.

“A high grade-point average doesn't always translate into on-field intelligence,” Friedgen told a group of boosters recently. “(Former Georgia Tech QB) Joe Hamilton had trouble going to class sometimes, but he could read defenses and make good decisions.”

Dickerson Working Double Shifts

Much has been made about the advent of two-way standouts in college football. Superb athletes such as Virginia Tech's DeAngelo Hall and Ohio State's Chris Gamble have become playmakers on both sides of the ball.

It hasn't gotten much notice, but Maryland has its own two-way player in Ricardo Dickerson. The 6-3, 238-pound sophomore is listed as a fullback, but he actually has been playing strong-side defensive end. Not bad for a player who was recruited as a linebacker and spent his initial two seasons in College Park playing that position.

Friedgen knew Dickerson was a good athlete with excellent physical tools and wanted to find a way to get him on the field. So the staff switched Dickerson to fullback, where there was a lack of depth after the unexpected departure of junior James Lynch to the NFL and the failure to land a fullback as part of the 2003 recruiting class.

Dickerson is the first to admit that the fullback experiment didn't work out too well, as he struggled with his assignments in Maryland's complicated offense.

“I was terrible in the spring,” Dickerson said. “I just never really got into the groove, and I deserved to be relegated to the scout team.”

Slated to back up Bernie Fiddler, Dickerson fell to third on the depth chart behind Maurice Smith, another converted linebacker. He was wasting away on the scout team until Scott Smith's back began acting up again, and the staff decided it needed to improve its depth at defensive end.

Dickerson steadily has seen more playing time on defense, and he has performed well while playing primarily as a pass-rushing specialist in Maryland's dime package. He also was thrust into an expanded role on offense after an injury to Fiddler. Against West Virginia, Dickerson participated in eight plays on offense and 15 on defense.

“Ricardo is like our poor man's Deion Sanders,” Friedgen quipped recently.

Dickerson said he's having fun playing football again and still shakes his head about the sudden turn of events. He attends offensive meetings because his job on defense is basic, but he carries both red and white jerseys to practice and flip-flops back and forth between offense and defense.

“For the first few weeks, I just wanted to get on the field. Now I'm going both ways. How crazy is that?” Dickerson said. “It's hard. My head is spinning all of the time. There are times when I don't know whether I'm coming or going. Fortunately, I'm not being asked to do too much at either position. On offense I'm only in on first and second down, and all I do is block. I'm not getting my hands on the ball any time soon. On defense, I go in to rush the passer. I just have to try and beat a block and get to the quarterback.”

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