First step toward top: improve 'D' that reached up to touch bottom

August 28, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

Since all things are relative, as Joe Altobelli once said, it is important to understand the difference between last place and laaaast place.

Last place is the bottom of the standings. Simple. Basic. No big deal. It happens.

Laaaast place is the extreme version. The bottom of the standings, maxxed out. It's finishing so far from the rest of civilization that you mail a letter and it only gets halfway there.

Ba-dum-bum.

A year ago, the Maryland Terrapins were ranked 106th in team defense among the 106 teams that played Division I-A college football. But they weren't just in last place.

The 6,083 yards that the Terps allowed in their 11 games was some 600 more than the runners-up from Temple. Some 800 more than ol' No. 104, BYU.

We're talking laaaast place.

Fact is, no major college defense had ever allowed as much yardage in a season as the Terps did in 1993. Kansas had held the record since yielding 5,896 yards in 1988. Which, of course, was just peanuts.

Anyway, as football coaches are wont to say about such negativity, "All that stuff is history and it's behind us now time-wise." Terps coach Mark Duffner would emphasize it with an exclamation point, no doubt.

Of course, that means we have only one thing to talk about: What lies ahead for Duffner and his defense. Will this season mark the beginning of the building of the quality defense Duffner needs to make good on his promise to turn Maryland into a winner? Or will we just see Creamed Team II?

In his first two seasons in College Park, Duffner has pretty much proved he can put together a major-college offense as dangerous as the one he produced in his prior job at smaller Holy Cross. His teams have obliterated the school record book.

All the points and yards have added up to only five wins in 22 games, however, for these reasons: 70, 69, 59, 55, 49, 49, 44, 43, 42. No, that's not this week's lottery hunch. Those are some of the final scores Maryland's opponents have recorded since Duffner arrived.

With quarterback Scott Milanovich back, the Terps should continue to make the scoreboard ring. But it's about time Duffner starts proving he can coach a capable defense, too.

Understand, that's not to say that, as they growl on the talk shows, he needs to start winning now. Such a suggestion would be knee-jerk and unfair. You don't judge a college football coach's record in two or three years. You give him four or five, time to groom his own set of experienced players. There are no excuses at that point.

(Besides, suggestions that he needs to win imply that a school with a $6 million athletic department deficit might consider buying out the rest of his five-year, $122,000-a-year contract. Get real.)

But while Duffner doesn't necessarily need to win this year, he does need to start fielding a defense that, say, can go more than two games without allowing 600 yards and/or seven touchdowns. That certainly would be a start.

In other words, although he is allotted five years to prove he is a big-time coach, Duffner better not save all of the improvement for that fifth year. Otherwise, recruiting will continue to be difficult at a school that, let's face it, has little to offer a top-notch recruit other than a pledge that things will get better.

Duffner has a new defensive coordinator, which may or may not mean something. (We won't know until we see the films.) More importantly, he has 12 of his top 14 tacklers back. True, it's the same gang that couldn't tackle straight a year ago. But many were freshmen then, freshmen who wouldn't have played if Duffner hadn't been essentially starting from scratch.

Some (Ratcliff Thomas and Lamont Gore, to name two) are supposed to be good ballplayers. Give them two more years together and they might be pretty mean.

When Mack Brown started over at North Carolina in 1988, he went 1-10 in his second year and 6-4-1 in his third.

It's hard to envision the Terps making a similar leap this year, but with their offense and much-improved kicking game (they didn't really have a kicker last year), they will at least stay in games. It's up to the defense to determine not only how many they win, but whether Duffner's stewardship is indeed on a proper course.

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