Terps make secondary their primary concern

August 20, 1994|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,Sun Staff Writer

COLLEGE PARK -- How serious is Maryland about improving its secondary?

On letter of intent signing day last February, the Terps awarded more than one-fourth of their scholarships -- six of 23 -- to defensive back prospects. At spring practice, Maryland shifted three sophomore wide receivers, including a starter with 41 catches in 1993, to defensive back.

Add the nine newcomers to the six returnees who played in the secondary in 1993, and Maryland has placed 15 of its approximately 80 scholarship players -- nearly one in five -- at defensive back. The ratio would be even higher if Gene Green, who left the team in the middle of last season after losing his job as a starter, had not called it quits again Thursday.

Kevin Coyle, the Terps' new defensive coordinator, found a unit that needed a semblance of a pass rush and more active linebacker play, but he made the secondary a priority when he was hired last winter.

His predecessor, Larry Slade, was fired after the Terps finished last in the nation in yards allowed for the second straight year and set an NCAA Division I-A record by allowing 553 yards per game.

The youngest defense in the nation usually started freshmen on the corners and at free safety, but with only two experienced secondary players on campus in 1993, competition for those jobs was hardly intense. Now, Coyle and head coach Mark Duffner hope they have created an atmosphere in which players must improve to retain a position.

"There are jobs to be won across the board, and the players have known that since January," said Coyle, who, in addition to being the coordinator, coaches the defensive backs. "The fact that there is competition will raise the level of play. If there's no one looking over your shoulder, there's no sense of urgency in your practice routine."

The Terps began 1993 with nine scholarship players in the secondary, and six had never played a down of NCAA football. By the fourth game, the cornerbacks were freshmen Orlando Strozier and A. J. Johnson, and classmate Lamont Gore was at free safety. By the fourth game, the team was down to four healthy defensive backs.

"The competition is much, much stiffer this year," said Gore, who was the Terps' second-leading tackler.

Gore is being challenged by junior Wade Inge, one of the three converted wide receivers. Inge had 26 catches as a freshman, but injuries pushed him down the offensive depth chart last season.

"I had to warm to the idea," Inge said. "I played free safety in high school, but I wanted to stay on the offensive end, because that's where the glory is here. We've got to change that."

Sophomore Jermaine Stewart, another former wide receiver, is in the running for the strong safety job along with Angel Guerra, a one-time walk-on who floated between both safety positions last year. He underwent back surgery last spring.

Johnson is the returning starter and front-runner at left cornerback. Coyle said four others are strong candidates for downs at both corners, but one thing is certain: Jay Johnson will be working on the right side. He's competing against anyone but his younger brother, A. J.

"The coaches have made it clear that we aren't going to compete against each other," said Jay Johnson, who spent the past two years at Northeastern Oklahoma A&M, a junior-college power. "We've done that enough."

Right cornerback became open when Strozier, who had four of (( the Terps' five interceptions in 1993, underwent knee surgery in February. Strozier hasn't been cleared for contact in practice, and he's been ruled out of the Sept. 3 opener at Duke.

In addition to Jay Johnson, cornerback prospects include junior Darrick Rather; Andrew Carter, a starting slot receiver last year who wasn't enthusiastic about the switch to defense; and Raphael Wall, a senior out of Wilde Lake High who started at free safety most of last season. He missed most of spring practice after shoulder surgery, but Wall has made every workout.

Life isn't necessarily simpler for Wall and the four others who played extensively in the secondary in 1993. The Terps are expected to stick with a four-man front, but after that, Duffner and Coyle have reworked schemes.

"There was a question at the end of our meeting [Thursday]," Coyle said. "Wall asked, 'How much more are we putting in?' We've purposely thrown an awful lot at them. We've installed a lot of different fronts and coverages, and we won't really be able to evaluate how they're doing until we start scrimmaging."

Which would be today.

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