Terps kids learn the hard way Young, small defense gets painful grooming

September 18, 1993|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,Staff Writer

COLLEGE PARK -- Inside linebacker Ratcliff Thomas was Maryland's Defensive Player of the Week at North Carolina last Saturday. In the spring of 1992, he accepted a scholarship from UMBC -- to play basketball.

One of the Terps' starting cornerbacks, Andreal Johnson, didn't officially sign a letter of intent with Maryland until Aug. 8. Nose guard Johnnie Hicks was a big man on campus last year, but the setting was Susquehanna Township (Pa.) High, and the competition was Gettysburg and Big Spring, not Florida State and Penn State.

Thomas, Johnson and Hicks are three of the nine teen-agers playing defense for Maryland. All told, defensive coordinator Larry Slade has called on 14 players who are in their first year of NCAA football, and the Terps are learning the hard way that you can't hurry football prospects.

Every week brings a new experience for Maryland's youngsters. They played their first college game two weeks ago, went on the road for the first time last week, and get their first action under the lights tonight at sold-out Byrd Stadium against West Virginia.

The Terps' defense is long on potential but short on accomplishment. After giving up 42 points to Virginia and 59 to North Carolina, the Terps are ranked last among the nation's Division I-A teams in total defense. The NCAA record for yards allowed per game, 536, was set by Kansas in 1988. The Terps are giving up 593.5 yards per game, but they still have nine games remaining to gain experience and lower that average.

Asked if his unit could glean anything positive from last week's loss at North Carolina, Slade said, "They've got another game under their belt. There are a lot of young guys out there, and they'll be better with each game they play."

Slade refuses to use youth as an excuse, but it's a valid one. The inexperience goes beyond the five first-year players who started against North Carolina. Strong safety Raphael Wall is a converted running back. Free safety Angel Guerra walked on in 1991, and inside linebacker Mike Settles, who walked on last year, is still a non-scholarship player.

At least eight of the two dozen players used thus far on defense didn't even participate in spring practice. Among last week's starters, Thomas was at prep school, and Hicks and Johnson were in high school.

The defense isn't only young, it's small.

Outside linebacker Jaime Flores is the only defensive player who is a fifth-year senior. Up until five weeks ago, many of his younger teammates had never worked with a strength coach. For the third straight game, the Terps' defense will be outweighed by approximately 20 pounds per man.

The 220-pound Thomas, who instead of playing basketball at UMBC last year put himself back into the football pool by attending Hargrave (Va.) Military Academy, said he's had to grow up in a hurry.

"It's been a big adjustment for me," said Thomas, who has a team-high 12 first hits. "Sometimes I'm taking on a lineman who's 300 pounds and strong, instead of just someone who's big."

Poor tackling contributed to some of Virginia's six touchdowns, and missed assignments helped North Carolina post eight. Mistakes in the secondary have been obvious, but Flores said that "it's happened to the linemen and linebackers, too."

The breakdowns are reminiscent of 1992, when Maryland finished last in Division I-A in total defense. Things were supposed to be better this year, with six starters returning. But three of those veterans are gone.

Sack leader Jim Panagos, plagued for several years by back problems, accepted the inevitable in July and stopped playing. In August, cornerback Mike Lacy was ruled academically ineligible. The biggest loss came in the opener, when Mark Sturdivant left the Virginia game with a broken foot.

When center Jamie Bragg became a full-time offensive lineman last spring, the defensive line figured to be anchored by Sturdivant and Panagos. Not wanting to disrupt an offensive line that has been impressive to date, coach Mark Duffner said that he hasn't considered moving Bragg back to defense.

For now, the Maryland defense will go with the players it has, and hope they improve in a hurry.

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