COLLEGE PARK -- Maryland free safety Andre Vaughn caught the ball chest high in midstride and fled 30 yards downfield before Syracuse brought him down. His long, graceful stride conjured up visions.
Not long ago, Vaughn was a heralded running back coming out of Oakland Mills High. Wooed by 80 colleges, Vaughn chose Maryland from a list that also included Syracuse, Purdue and Florida. Maryland's coaches had high hopes for him, but decided to redshirt him as a freshman in 1988 because they had backs in quantity if not quality.
"He was a recruiting phenom who had everything you look for in a high school back," said Tony Whittlesey, Maryland's running backs coach at the time. "He had size, speed and the extra instinct of great running backs -- vision, acceleration and the ability to make the right cuts."
Then, one day in the spring of 1989, on the last play of a scrimmage on Maryland's artificial turf field, Vaughn was tackled by a defensive back and went down with an injured left knee. The operation to repair it performed by Dr. Stan Lavine required 6 1/2 hours. It was major surgery. Vaughn didn't wake up until the next day.
Vaughn missed the 1989 season and came back last year. In the third game of the season, against Clemson, Vaughn returned a kickoff 29 yards in his first game action. It was at least a flash of the old Andre Vaughn. But Vaughn never felt like his old self.
"My knee felt fine, but it was taking a pounding," Vaughn said. "I didn't want to risk it again. On my cuts, I was a step slower. It was time to try something else."
Vaughn, a junior, is now a defensive back, the No. 2 free safety behind Bill Inge. He plays when the Terps use their nickel defense (five defensive backs) in obvious passing situations. Last week against Syracuse, when strong safety Ron Reagan got hurt, Vaughn replaced him.
"We had both free safeties in there at the same time," defensive coordinator Greg Williams said, referring to Vaughn and Inge. "They're two guys with speed and we let them roam."
After last season, Vaughn and the coaches agreed that a position switch would be wise. Wide receiver or defensive back? The latter sounded better to Vaughn. With an additional fast athlete in his stable, Williams was able to move Mike Thomas from free safety to left cornerback, where he is starting.
"The switch also fit in well with our needs because we had running backs returning and good recruits at that position coming in," Williams said. "We wanted Andre to have a say in the change, and that's what he wanted, defensive back."
"Vaughn showed last season he was ready to play again after the knee surgery," said Kurt Van Valkenburgh, a defensive coach. "But I think he had lost his feel for running back. He was tentative."
"He gets better every practice," Williams said. "He only practiced six times in the spring because of a hamstring, but he hasn't missed a second this fall."
Last week coach Joe Krivak called in the players who had switched positions to get a sense about how they felt about it. Vaughn said he felt wonderful.
He felt even better after intercepting Syracuse quarterback Marvin Graves' pass in the second quarter and returning it 30 yards. It is Maryland's only interception this year.
* The Terps go into tomorrow's game at Byrd Stadium without the services of starting quarterback Jim Sandwisch, down with an injured throwing arm. Junior John Kaleo, a junior college All-American last year, will start, but freshman Scott Milanovich is waiting in the wings.