On eve of opener, Maryland loses 3 defensive players

September 03, 1994|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,Sun Staff Writer

DURHAM, N.C. -- Questions, questions.

Already rocked by the departure of five players in August, how will the Maryland football team react to yesterday's announcement that two sophomore defensive linemen have been declared academically ineligible for the opener and another for the entire season?

How often will the Terps' offense that last year used four wide receivers more than 99 percent of the time include a tight end or fullback?

In an attempt to plug the gaps in what was the most porous defense in the history of college football, will Maryland's new coordinator show three- or five-man fronts, or throw in a nickel package?

Are the Terps' adventures in kicking really a thing of the past?

Finally, and most frightening of all on opening day: If the Terps can't beat Duke, who can they beat?

Maryland will begin its third season under Mark Duffner today at Wallace Wade Stadium, and if preparation has seemed abnormally urgent, it's because the coach, his staff and players consider a win a must for a program that has spent much of the past decade in a tailspin.

The Terps' cause was not helped any by the news that Jason Brown will miss the entire season and Johnnie Hicks and Tim Watson will be kept out of at least today's game.

According to a Maryland news release, the three failed to meet a new NCAA requirement that student-athletes earn 75 percent of their credit hours toward eligibility during the regular school year, in Maryland's case before summer sessions. All three have the 24 credit hours necessary to play as sophomores, but they didn't attain 18 of them during the fall 1993 and spring 1994 semesters, as the NCAA requires.

A Maryland spokesman said the appeals process for Hicks and Watson isn't complete, and they may be declared eligible for future games.

Hicks started the Terps' last 10 games as a freshman in 1993 and was expected to anchor the line from his tackle spot. Ends Watson and Brown weren't listed on the depth chart, but that may have been a reflection of their iffy academic status.

All three are sophomores, and their loss means only 15 of the 23 recruited players who arrived in August 1993 are still on the team.

Despite yesterday's bad news, Maryland still feels it has a lot going for it today.

The Terps have a nine-game win streak at Duke. Two of Duffner's five Maryland victories have come against the Blue Devils, the only team in the Atlantic Coast Conference that has been away from a bowl game longer than Maryland. Another reason Duke has a new coach, Fred Goldsmith, is that they're the only team with fewer conference wins over the past three seasons than the Terps.

The schedule is another motivator. Maryland's next two games are against defending national champion Florida State and West Virginia, two of the four teams that provided the prime-time fare last New Year's Day. A defeat today most likely would mean a third straight sorry September for the Terps, who started 0-4 in 1992 and 0-6 in '93.

"That's the reason we need to win," said junior quarterback Scott Milanovich. "We haven't won an opener in a while, and when you get into a habit of losing, it's going to take a toll on your confidence. If we're going to achieve any of our goals, it's got to start today."

Milanovich, who has reason to be cocky after setting school records for passing yardage (3,499) and touchdowns (26) in his first year as a starter, deliberately raised some eyebrows with his media day prediction that the Terps could win seven games. That would match the victory total of the past three years.

A veteran offense is the starting point for any high hopes. Milanovich is the latest in a long line of NFL prospects to come through College Park, but this year's high draft choice probably will be left offensive tackle Steve Ingram, a Playboy All-American. Wide receivers Russ Weaver and Jermaine Lewis combined for 121 receptions, 1,563 yards and nine touchdowns in 1993.

If Allen Williams, who has been slowed by an ankle injury, isn't ready to play superback in the one-back set, redshirt freshman Brian Underwood is.

Maryland is capable of scoring 40 points today, but that would have been enough to win just four games last year, and Duffner is painfully aware of the need to radically improve the defense and special teams.

Joe O'Donnell, a sophomore transfer from Division I-AA Tennessee-Martin, beat out freshman recruit Brad Rhodes for all of the kicking jobs, so field goals again are an option.

Another newcomer is Kevin Coyle, the defensive coordinator who was hired last December to right a unit that allowed 553 yards per game, an NCAA record. Ten of the top 12 tacklers return, and six of them will start. Johnnie Hicks (tackle), Ratcliff Thomas (inside linebacker) and A. J. Johnson (left cornerback) started and learned invaluable lessons as freshmen last season.

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