Duffner sees glass as half-full, even if defense is empty

August 30, 1994|By BILL TANTON

One night during the baseball season -- hey, remember the baseball season? -- Mark Duffner showed up at Oriole Park.

Duffner, the third-year coach of the University of Maryland football team, had finished his camp at College Park that day. He came to Baltimore to relax at an Orioles game with his quarterbacks coach, Rob Spence.

The evening turned out to be nightmarish for the Orioles.

This was on June 22, the night Milwaukee scored eight runs off Ben McDonald in the second inning to take a 9-0 lead.

"You picked a terrible game to come to," I told Duffner.

"Oh, no," he said. "We're going to come back and win this game."

Optimism is one thing; this bordered on the ridiculous.

In the bottom of the second, the Orioles scored to make it 9-1.

"See?" Duffner said as the run crossed the plate. "We're %J chipping away at 'em. I told you we were going to come back and win this thing."

The Orioles didn't come back and win, of course. They lost, 9-2.

That vignette is pure Duffner. This man can look at anything and see a silver lining, which is a good thing in view of the situation he's in at Maryland.

His Terps open their season Saturday at Duke -- and they're one-point underdogs.

When you're underdog to Duke in football, you've got problems.

The Blue Devils were 3-8 last year. They lost to Maryland, 26-18.

This year, as you might have expected, Duke has a new coach, Fred Goldsmith, from Rice. Even so, Duke was picked dead last in the Atlantic Coast Conference writers' preseason poll.

Maryland had a 2-9 record a year ago, down from 3-8 in '92, Duffner's first season here.

One Saturday night at Byrd Stadium last fall Maryland lost, 70-7, to Penn State. Duffner even saw good in that. "We saw a lot of good things out there," he said.

"Whoa!" I said. "What could you possibly have seen that was good about that game?"

"We got a chance to play a lot of our young kids," Duffner said. "By playing against Penn State they got to see what it takes to play at the top level."

There was more.

"We had a lot of high school prospects here as our guests," he said.

"Well, that game would make them not want to come to Maryland," I suggested.

"No," the coach said, "that game showed them that we need a lot of help. It showed that they can play right away if they come here."

Somehow, Duffner and his staff did coax a lot of high school talent into coming to College Park, despite all the negatives.

A university is allowed to bring in 25 recruits in a given year. They brought in 23. A number of them will play against Duke -- and again the following week at defending NCAA champion Florida State.

"We'll still be a run-and-shoot football team with a wide-open offense tailored to the talent," says Duffner. "We'll play a lot of first-year players, especially on defense."

Aha! That's the problem.

That -- an overabundance of young players, especially on defense -- was the the problem last year. And it still is.

Maryland had the worst defense in the country last year. In fact, the Terps had the worst defense, yardage-wise, in NCAA history. The defensive coordinator, Larry Slade, understandably was let go.

But the real problem was gross inexperience. Seven freshmen were starting on defense. You can't win like that. No way.

The Maryland defense will be improved this year. The new coordinator is Kevin Coyle, who was with Duffner at Holy Cross from 1986-1990, when that school was a consistent winner.

Coyle was the defensive coordinator at Syracuse until rejoining Duffner this year. His Orange teams were among the national defensive leaders.

There was one huge difference between those defenses and the ones Maryland fielded under Duffner.

"In my three years at Syracuse," says Coyle, who wears a Fiesta Bowl ring, a remembrance of his stint with the Orange, "we didn't start one freshman."

This is why Maryland is in for another rough year. Not because Larry Slade is gone. Not because Kevin Coyle is back with his old buddy Duffner. But because there still will be too much youth on the defensive side of the ball.

Maryland is coming. It won't happen this year. It may not happen in '95 either. But by '96 Duffner should have a deep, balanced and experienced team.

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