After stepping up, a step back

November 11, 1994|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,Sun Staff Writer

COLLEGE PARK -- The conversation between Tim Watson and Cornelius White last week turned to Maryland's prospects on the defensive line.

"I was in the dining hall talking to Tim," White said. "He said, 'Do you know how good our defensive line is going to be next year?' "

In other words, when they're sophomores.

White, a freshman, has started three games at end for the Terps, and Watson, who is academically ineligible this fall, played tackle as a freshman last year. Their youth and optimism is what holds Maryland's defense together through games like last week's fiasco with North Carolina State.

The Terps never stopped the Wolfpack in a 47-45 loss. It was a cruel comedown for a unit that had allowed only one touchdown in four of its previous six games, a stretch Maryland (4-5) will try to remember as it prepares for tomorrow's Atlantic Coast Conference game at No. 21 Virginia (6-2).

"I really believe they have a better defense than they had a year ago," Virginia coach George Welsh said. "It's a sounder defensive scheme. It looks like they have better athletes. You can see they're getting a little older."

It wasn't hard for the Terps to improve on 1993, when they set an NCAA record for yards allowed, but everyone on the staff from coach Mark Duffner on down hasn't forgotten that Maryland's defense remains a work in progress.

Just as they did a year ago, the Terps blame their defensive woes on youth and inexperience. The lineup often includes White and another freshman, 18-year-old Eric Hicks, at end; a pair of tackles who began the season on the offensive line; two converted wide receivers at strong and free safety; and a 197-pound linebacker.

Maryland lost four defensive linemen in the preseason, three to academic ineligibility. Their anticipated return, combined with six freshmen and sophomores who have played this year and two freshmen who redshirted, make for a considerably better depth chart than the one defensive line coach Cliff Schwenke has had recently.

"I can see six or seven prospective starters out of that group next year, and there still won't be a senior in the bunch," Schwenke said.

"I think our secondary is improved because there was competition for playing time there, and I hope the same thing happens on the defensive line. In two more years, it's going to be a real good defensive line."

Even if all of those linemen are eligible and healthy next year, the defense still needs recruiting help.

After quarterback, Maryland's top need is at linebacker, where it might sign as many as five recruits. Five of the Terps' top six linebackers will return, but other than sophomore Ratcliff Thomas, the leading tackler for the second straight year, it's an undersized group.

Help could be provided by Latroy Fowlkes, The Baltimore Sun's 1993 Defensive Player of the Year from North County High who redshirted this season with an asthma-like condition, and Eric Ogbogu, who switched sides last month after the tight end was taken out of the run-and-shoot offense.

The secondary hopes to get back sophomore cornerback Orlando Strozier, last year's interception leader who sat out this season recuperating from knee surgery.

If the personnel needs to get better, so does the technique, even though first-year defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle had seen improved tackling before the N.C. State game. It was the latest instance of a team with a decent rushing attack overwhelming the Terps' basic 4-3 alignment.

The Wolfpack's 560 yards raised Maryland's yards-allowed average to 464.6, No. 104 out of 107 teams in Division I-A. Thanks to New Mexico, Northeast Louisiana and Texas-El Paso, the Terps' stay at the bottom of the NCAA in that category should end at two years.

They're giving up two fewer touchdowns a game, but half of that improvement is attributable to a schedule change from Penn State to Tulane.

Interceptions and sacks have exceeded last year's totals.

It's progress, but is it enough?

"We're getting better," Duffner said, "but we're not where we need to be."

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