July 28, 2003 COLLEGE PARK With August two-a-days just around the corner, it seems appropriate to take a look at the top 10 questions confronting a Maryland football program that again looks like one of the best in the ACC.
1. Will tailback Bruce Perry remain healthy?
Perry could be one of the top tailbacks in the country this season, if he regains the form that made him the ACC offensive player of the year in 2001. However, the staff can't blindly count on Perry, as he's been injury-prone throughout his career.
The rising senior is coming off a difficult 2002 campaign that saw him limited to six games (one start) by a strained stomach muscle, torn groin muscle and bruised shoulder. He rushed for 314 yards after rolling up 1,242 the previous season. Perry showed flashes of his old acceleration and burst during spring practice, but he wasn't so outstanding that he completely separated himself from the other tailback candidates.
The good news for the Terrapins is that sophomore Josh Allen looks like a star in the making. There is even decent depth behind him, as J.P. Humber, Mario Merrills and Sam Maldonado all have run well at times.
We are deep at running back, Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen said, and they all bring something a little bit different to the table.
What will happen if starting quarterback Scott McBrien goes down?
Much of preseason practice will be spent preparing a backup quarterback, as that issue was not settled during the spring. Friedgen must decide quickly who the top candidate is and give that signal-caller significant reps.
Quarterbacks coach Charlie Taaffe announced that juco transfer Orlando Evans vaulted to No. 2 on the depth chart following spring camp, based on his overall experience and knowledge of the offense. However, some insiders think that statement was made to motivate redshirt freshmen Joel Statham and Sam Hollenbach, who represent the future of the program. It certainly would be in Maryland's best interest if one of those two emerged as a strong backup who could see mop-up duty this season and thus be ready to replace McBrien as the starter in 2004.
Who will start at center?
Offensive line coach Tom Brattan is hoping junior Kyle Schmitt (6-5, 302) is finally up to the task. Schmitt was slated to take over for Melvin Fowler last season but faltered, forcing the staff to switch All-ACC guard Todd Wike to shore up that crucial position.
Schmitt had a so-so spring camp and certainly has not nailed down the job. Robert Jenkins was brought in from Nassau Community College to challenge Schmitt and provide insurance in case of injury. However, it appears Jenkins will not be part of the program this fall because of academic difficulties. Sophomore Ryan McDonald, a walk-on, is the only other true center on the roster, although incoming recruit Andrew Crummey is capable of playing the position.
Who will take over at fullback?
The early departure of powerful junior James Lynch, who entered the NFL draft largely because he was well on the road to academic ineligibility, left Maryland without a natural fullback. Linebacker Ricardo Dickerson, who was given a look at the position during the spring, drew mixed reviews. The 240-pounder proved a capable run-blocker but did not exactly set the world afire with his other skills.
I think Ricardo is learning pretty well, but I think he needs to do a better job of catching the ball and picking up blitzes, Friedgen said. Those are two important things we ask of the fullback.
Senior Bernie Fiddler is the lone returning fullback, but he isn't much of an offensive threat, either. Friedgen could choose to use Fiddler and/or Dickerson primarily as blockers and bring good-looking freshman Vernon Davis in as an H-back in passing situations. It appears Maldonado, a combination fullback-tailback who transferred from Ohio State, will be the short-yardage/goal-line specialist.
Will the downfield passing game evolve enough that Maryland can successfully stretch the field?
This was a major point of emphasis during spring practice, and there wasn't as much progress as the staff would have liked to see. McBrien must do a better job of throwing the deep ball, while Friedgen is still looking for some receivers who can stretch the field. Until someone else emerges, steady senior Jafar Williams (20.1 yards per catch) remains the team's only decent deep threat.
We need to improve our quick-strike capability, Friedgen said. We have not shown opposing defenses that we have a home run threat that must be respected.
Wide receivers coach James Franklin said sophomore Danny Melendez has the most potential to become a consistent deep target. He has the best hands on the team and the speed to get behind the defense. The 175-pounder had trouble getting off the line at times last season but reportedly has gotten much stronger.
Maryland also intends to move speedster Steve Suter from slot back to wideout, with the hope that he can go get the long ball. However, Suter missed all of spring practice with a leg injury and was unable to truly learn the new position. Meanwhile, the early word is that true freshman Andrew Weatherly is legit and possesses that combination of size (6-4, 200) and speed (4.5) the Terrapins have been sorely missing on the outside.
Will Scott Smith finally step up?
The enigmatic fifth-year senior had better step up, or Maryland is in serious trouble at strong-side defensive end. Backup Kevin Eli is the only other player listed at that position on the depth chart, although defensive line coach Dave Sollazzo no doubt will shift someone during August two-a-days.
Smith has all the tools, as he possesses above-average speed (4.7) and athleticism to go along with superior strength (Iron Terp status). However, he also has a history of back problems, which limited him to five games in 2000 and nine in 2001. He played a career-high 13 games as Durrand Roundtree's backup in 2002 despite periodic back spasms and was relatively productive.
Sollazzo has some other options, especially if Peach Bowl hero Justin Duffie and prep school pickup Robert Armstrong (6-4, 307) continue to develop at nose tackle. Finally, don't be surprised to see junior C.J. Feldheim used at end in certain situations. He was a sack specialist at Hereford High and was recruited as an end before bulking up to 297 pounds and shifting inside.
We're going to get our three best defensive linemen on the field, vowed Friedgen, who has a strong anchor in All-ACC tackle Randy Starks.
Who will replace E.J. Henderson at middle linebacker?
There is no denying that Henderson was a major reason Maryland's defense was so tough the past two seasons. The Butkus Award winner wreaked havoc in opponents' backfields and did not miss many tackles. A dominant player such as Henderson can make up for a lot of deficiencies in other areas. Some dropoff is inevitable, but the Terps cannot afford it to be too dramatic, as the current scheme (like most) funnels the ball to that spot.
At this point, it appears the position will be inherited by D'Qwell Action Jackson, who racked up 51 tackles in 2002. The sophomore from Florida is a bit undersized (6-1, 217) to play inside but has shown the instinct and aggressiveness that are most important.
I like the way D'Qwell pursues, Friedgen said, and he's the type that will really hit you.
Many observers are wondering whether incoming freshman Wesley Jefferson, a consensus All-American, is capable of becoming an immediate starter. The Gwynn Park product has prototypical size (6-2, 231) and possesses the nasty streak that is needed for the job. He impressed the staff by reporting for offseason workouts in tip-top shape.
Wes has all the physical tools to be the next E.J. Henderson, strength and conditioning coordinator Dwight Galt said. He's come to the weight room religiously on his own all summer and has been lifting like a madman. He's for real and seems determined to get on the field right away.
Who will be the odd men out in the secondary?
Maryland is overloaded with talented defensive backs, which is a nice problem to have. The Terps are three-deep at each position, and the staff would be wise to redshirt a couple of players, especially since there are five seniors. All four starters and backups return, and there are newcomers pushing for playing time.
Senior Jamal Chance, who sat out last season to focus on academics, likely will supplant sophomore Gerrick McPhearson as the backup to left corner Curome Cox. Hard-hitting redshirt freshman Marcus Wimbush is battling junior Raymond Custis for the No. 2 spot at free safety, behind All-ACC selection Madieu Williams. Speedster Chris Choice, another redshirt freshman, has shown he can contribute at right corner behind All-ACC pick Domonique Foxworth. Finally, converted quarterback Chris Kelley had an impressive spring and is challenging senior Andrew Smith for reserve action at strong safety. Something has to give, of course, and the early word is that the staff is leaning toward redshirting backup corner Ruben Haigler. He's a reliable player who should be more valuable as a potential starter in 2004 than as a backup in 2003.
9. Which scholarship player will disappear from the roster prior to the opener?
Maryland appeared ready to enter preseason camp with 86 players on scholarship, so somebody has to go in order to get down to the NCAA-mandated limit. Academics could make this decision for Friedgen, or perhaps a former walk-on who was rewarded with a scholarship will have to be cut.
This is the first time in recent memory the Terps have been confronted with this problem, which shows the development of the program. It also explains why Friedgen wasn't too broken up by the news that recruit Keon Lattimore, a highly regarded skill athlete out of Mount St. Joseph in Baltimore, did not qualify. (Lattimore decided to attend Hargrave Military Academy and has pledged to re-sign with Maryland.) Additionally, as reported previously, incoming freshmen Dre Moore and Dan Gronkowski will grayshirt and not join the program as scholarship athletes until January.
Will Friedgen be fully recovered from offseason hip surgery come the start of August two-a-days?
The answer to that one is probably not, as the aptly nicknamed Fridge suffered a setback in his recovery from the May 12 surgery.
Friedgen, who spent much of the summer bed-ridden, has re-gained all the weight (and more) he lost as part of a much-publicized fundraising campaign, which saw boosters donate money for every pound he dropped. He looked extremely immobile and was walking with the help of a cane during the annual ACC Football Kickoff weekend.
The coach has vowed to be walking on his own by the start of preseason practice, but don't be surprised if he once again is relegated to riding around in a golf cart. What's most important to the Terps is that he's back to full strength in time to patrol the sidelines during the Aug. 30 season opener against Northern Illinois.