After 2 years on move, Wall happily settles into Terps secondary

SAFE(TY) HAVEN AT LAST

September 01, 1993|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,Staff Writer

COLLEGE PARK -- Versatility isn't always a blessing.

Just ask Raphael Wall, a junior from Wilde Lake High who plugged a number of holes for Maryland in 1992. He was the superback in three games, played in the secondary in four others, and was the team's top kickoff returner.

He wasn't satisfied with his performance on either side of the line, but Wall predicts that the second half of his Terps' career will be more settled -- and productive -- than the first.

"Let's say there's been uncertainty about my role here," Wall said. "I was somewhat frustrated and confused by my situation last year, but that period's over."

At the end of last season, after consultation with the coaching staff and a long look at the depth chart, Wall asked to be a full-time defensive back. Now he's the Terps'strong safety, one of seven first-year starters on a defense that's younger, but supposedly more talented, than the unit that allowed more than 474 yards a game and faltered several times in the fourth quarter en route to last season's 3-8 record.

"At the end of last season, I told Coach [Mark] Duffner that whatever I'm going to play in spring practice, I want to stay there and make it my future," Wall said. "I had to choose what I wanted to do, and this is where I can most help the team.

"I don't think about playing running back anymore. I've got two seasons to make a name on defense, and I want to become a master at this position."

The decision to defend wasn't made hastily.

Wall rushed for more than 5,100 yards in three All-Metro-caliber seasons at Wilde Lake, starting the Howard County power's reign of three straight state titles in 1990.

When he arrived at Maryland, however, Wall wasn't even the top recruit at running back from the Baltimore area. More expectations were placed on Randallstown's Larry Washington, and besides, the pecking order at running back since 1991 has always started with Mark Mason.

Season-ending injuries to Mason the past two years have created opportunities for others, however, and Wall got in three games late in 1991, playing time occasionally regretted by a 20-year-old who in retrospect could have used a redshirt season.

"That year can be viewed as a waste," Wall said, "but it did show me how intense you have to be at this level."

Last season was Duffner's first at Maryland. It was a year of transition for everyone, with a few too many changes for Wall:

* He was briefly considered as an inside receiver in the run-and-shoot offense.

* He spent most of the preseason at safety.

* When legal problems led to Washington's brief ineligibility, Wall was moved to running back for the season opener against Virginia, but got no carries.

* Against Penn State and Pitt, Wall was moved to the secondary.

* Mason and Washington were injured against Pitt, so Wall returned to superback, rushing 23 times for 122 yards against Georgia Tech and Wake Forest.

* Wall then was shifted back to defense, getting eight tackles in the victory over Duke.

* In week 10, Wall practiced with both units and eventually played safety, where he watched Florida State touchdowns go over and around him in a 69-21 loss.

"I don't think I was prepared to play that game," Wall said. "I practiced at running back the whole week, but toward the end I was put in on defense as part of a plan to retain [Florida State quarterback] Charlie Ward. The [position] coaches didn't like it when I was needed elsewhere. That game was embarrassing for me."

While his teammates enjoyed a season-ending upset of Clemson thatprovided a psychic anchor over the winter, Wall rode the bench against the Tigers. He then began the shift to full-time strong safety, and Duffner said the narrower focus should improve Wall and the Terps.

"We have not been playing cat-and-mouse with him, in terms of moving him back and forth to different positions," Duffner said. "He's steady right now at strong safety."

That's what Wall, who can still return kickoffs, wants to hear.

"With switching back and forth from offense to defense every other week, I couldn't develop my skills the way I wanted to," Wall said.

"I was a slasher as a running back, probably made too many moves sometimes, and I've had to learn to be more physical.

"The off-season preparation was incredibly important. I've got good speed, but without the proper technique, all that speed is worthless. I've watched as much film as anyone here, and tried to visualize what I'll do in certain situations.

"I just wish I could get out there and cover people and hit for real."

Wall will get the chance to do that Saturday.

THE WALL FILE

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Name: Raphael Wall

Born: April 3, 1973

Class: Junior

Height: 5 feet 11

Weight: 200

Hometown/High school: Columbia/Wilde Lake

1992 numbers: Led the Terps in kickoff returns, 24 for 257 yards; rushed 28 times for 129 yards in three games; played defensive back in four games, in on 16 tackles.

Coach's quote: "The running back situation last year was like Ten Little Indians, and the team needed him there," Mark Duffner said. "We liked what we saw of Raphael at running back, but now he's working purely in the secondary. He's well suited to strong safety."

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