Young Terps speed toward better times

JOHN EISENBERG

September 05, 1993|By JOHN EISENBERG

COLLEGE PARK -- It resembled the beginning of the old "Tonight Show" routine: The Maryland Terrapins are so young . . .

"How young are you?" someone asked Orlando Strozier after the Terps' 43-29 loss to Virginia yesterday.

"You mean me or the whole team?" Strozier asked.

Doesn't matter.

Strozier, a freshman cornerback, is all of 19. So, it seems, is every one of his teammates.

"We're very, very, very young," said senior superback Mark Mason.

Three verys!

The Terps aren't just young in pockets. They're young everywhere. At quarterback. In the offensive line. On defense.

The Terps are the only team in the ACC that still shops at Gap For Kids.

OK, not really.

"It's like a new team in some ways," said Mason, who, at 21, qualifies as a grandfather among these fledglings.

A new team? Absolutely. Yesterday, freshmen had two interceptions, a fumble recovery, a sack, a touchdown catch. Sophomores had a blocked punt, two touchdown passes, a touchdown catch. The leading tackler was a freshman linebacker. The starting quarterback and top receiver were sophomores. Eight of 11 defensive starters were new.

It was the first game of head coach Mark Duffner's second year, but, in essence, it was the beginning of his planned renovation. He managed to install his up-tempo style and upbeat attitude last year, but he was still working with Joe Krivak's players. No more. There are still Krivak recruits left, but, suddenly, they're very much in the minority.

Of the 73 players listed on the roster yesterday, only nine were seniors, 16 juniors.

How young are they? Lionel Richie is their idea of classical music.

OK, not really.

But a new team? Absolutely.

"Did the loss remind you of last year?" someone asked Duffner, referring to the Terps' five losses of a touchdown or less a year ago, and Virginia's two fourth-quarter touchdowns yesterday.

"I didn't think of last year at all," Duffner said. "We've got a whole new cast of characters."

Indeed. And finally, the Terps are joining the modern football world in that their defining quality is speed, the lack of which has cost them the past few years.

"We're so much faster than when I got here, it's unbelievable," junior safety Raphael Wall said.

Yesterday, freshman defensive end Mike Gillespie chased down Virginia's quarterback on a big third-down play. Not once did a Virginia receiver go deep, as had been the custom.

"We're going to make mistakes," Strozier said, "but we've got a lot of talented, young guys who can play."

Guys so young they think Bill Clinton is old.

OK, not really.

You could see the future in Ratcliff Thomas, a freshman linebacker who filled the void when senior defensive leader Mark Sturdivant injured an ankle, responding with four tackles and seven assists.

You could see the future in Jermaine Lewis, a sophomore receiver (and sprinting champion) so fast and nifty that you can be sure his performance yesterday -- seven catches, 94 yards -- will become the norm.

You could see the future in quarterback Scott Milanovich, who responded to his average first-game performance with such a confident shrug that you could almost see him becoming a prime-timer.

Of course, before the future comes a present that will not always be pretty. Such a young team will have trouble on the road and trouble against the Florida States. Count on another losing record this season.

No, it's not going to make Duffner's life easy. The Terps have had but one winning season since 1985, and patience is not a virtue common to bug-eyed alums. There will be grumbling, complaints. And, no, losing with young players today doesn't automatically mean that tomorrow will bring wins. You still have to do it.

But it takes a minimum of three years to turn around a program, and, make no mistake, Duffner is on the way. He is recruiting major-league talent, players on the lists of top teams. You should see things start to turn next year.

Meanwhile, the Terps will just have to live with situations such as yesterday's, when, with Virginia driving for the leading touchdown in the fourth quarter, they had six new players on the field. Makes it tough.

Still, you should have been there to hear the new cry rise from the Byrd Stadium bleachers: "Change that diaper!"

OK, not really.

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