COLLEGE PARK - On one of those hot, humid August days this week, University of Maryland wide-receivers coach Rod Sharpless was shooing a few gnats. They wouldn't go away. He shooed again. No difference. The gnats were relentless.
Now, if only his wide receivers can be as pesky this year.
"We're all kind of small and we lack a little experience, but I think we're just as talented as any group of receivers they have had here, said Maryland junior flanker Richie Harris (Mount St. Joseph High). "We all run 4.4 (seconds in the 40-yard dash] or better. Right now, we may be a little underrated, but that's fine. We'll see how it turns out at the end of the year."
It isn't hard to overlook Maryland's wide receivers this year. Starting senior flanker Gene Thomas is a huge 5feet 11, 167 pounds. Starting junior split end Marcus Badgett is a whopping 6-0, 179 pounds. Backup split end Dan Prunzik tips the scale at 5-10, 173 pounds. and, not to be outdone, Harris checks in at 5-10, 144 pounds.
"I think we're where we need to be as far as practice; we just have to polish up a couple of things." said Sharpless. "Experience is of vital importance, and we don't have a lot of that. What we're going to need is some people to step forward. Richie and Marcus are going to have to play bigger roles this season."
And so is Thomas. Last year Thomas was nicknamed "Prime Time" after catching game-winning passes in the final minutes of the first two games against Virginia Tech and West Virginia.
But it was wide-out Barry Johnson who became the Terps' clutch performer, catching 34 passes for 629 yards and four touchdowns. Thomas finished with only 17 receptions for 325 yards and four touch-downs.
Johnson has moved to the Denver Broncos' practice squad. Is Thomas ready to fill the void?
"I'm feeling a little pressure to pick up the slack," said Thomas, who started all 12 games last season. "Any receiver would like to catch a few more balls and have the winning catch. But I don't want to be selfish and put my goals ahead of the team's. I just want to do my part."
Badgett isn't as experienced as Thomas. He played sparingly last season, catching only nine passes for 172 yards but may have had the offensive play of the season when he caught a 71-yard pass down the left sideline against Virginia.
While Badgett's development has been pretty much on schedule, Harris' career has been filled with highs and lows. He played as a true freshman and, as a sophomore, caught 10 passes for 150 yards until he slightly separated his shoulder, causing him to miss the last two games.
Harris redshirted last season after pulling a hamstring and suffering from turf toe. He also has had personality clashes with coach Joe Krivak.
"We talked during the off-season, and there really weren't any major differences," Harris said. "We agreed that if I work hard, stay healthy, then I should get some playing time.
"So far, so good, as far as my health," said Harris. "To be honest, I'm looking forward to a big season and making some major contributions."
Prunzik is similar to Johnson, but shorter. He has outstanding quickness and maybe the surest hands of all the receivers. He caught seven passes for 108 yards last season and returned punts.
"I feel comfortable with this group, and they're working pretty hard," said Maryland quarterback Jim Sandwisch. "Maybe they don't have the physical size of a Vernon Joines or an Azizuddin Abdur-Ra'oof. Those guys could block the biggest defensive backs.
"But the receivers we have are all fast and elusive. Plus, we've got two good H-backs in Frank Wycheck and Chad Wiestling and two good running backs in Troy Jackson and Mark Mason. That gives us a lot of weapons and a whole lot of balance."