Hicks, Terps enjoy a happy reunion

September 09, 1995|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,Sun Staff Writer

COLLEGE PARK -- It was a test of brute strength, the kind that Maryland usually had failed in the 1990s, a simple play that reminded the Terps how much they missed Johnnie Hicks last year.

Academically ineligible in 1994, Hicks was back at nose tackle last week for the season opener at Tulane. Late in the first quarter, on third-and-one near midfield, the Green Wave sent its halfback up the middle, where Hicks shed two blockers and stopped him for no gain. It was the first of his six tackles, and it set the tone in the Terps' 29-10 victory.

"You don't know what it means to have a guy like Johnnie back," said Cliff Schwenke, the Terps' defensive line coach who has been like the boy at the dike the past two years, plugging leaks here and there. "For starters, I sleep at night. Johnnie had a fine game against Tulane, but we'll really see where we are this week."

Schwenke was referring to today's Atlantic Coast Conference game with North Carolina at noon. The upper deck at Byrd Stadium will be opened for the first time, and fans also will see how the renovations to Maryland's defense are progressing.

As of yesterday afternoon, coach Mark Duffner still hadn't named a starting quarterback, and said he'll wait to see how Brian

Cummings looks during the pre-game warm-up before deciding. If Cummings' sore ankle is strong enough, he'll start. If not, the job will go to Orlando Strozier, as the offense scrambles while Scott Milanovich serves a four-game suspension for gambling.

All of Milanovich's passing records the past two years meant little because the Maryland defense was small and young, and no opponent exploited those deficiencies like North Carolina. In last year's meeting, the Tar Heels were stopped only by the clock at the end of each half. Two years ago, they racked up a school-record 714 yards.

That game was Hicks' first as a starter. He was rushed into the lineup as a true freshman after captain Mark Sturdivant broke his ankle in the opener.

Hicks ended up leading the Terps' defensive linemen in tackles in 1993, but against North Carolina, he had one measly assist.

At 275 pounds, Hicks isn't much bigger than he was two years ago, but he has grown considerably from the kid who was overwhelmed physically and mentally by the Tar Heels.

"I had never seen anything like that in my life," said Hicks, now a redshirt sophomore. "The coaches tried to prepare me for the traps, and it was the first time I had ever seen that many reads. For coming off the ball low and hard, North Carolina was the best offensive line I saw that year. They never took a break."

There was no letup on Maryland's defense that year. Hicks missed the fourth game with a sprained ankle, but returned for a 70-7 loss to Penn State. By season's end, the Terps had set an NCAA record for yards allowed, and Hicks, a geography major, was hopelessly behind in the classroom.

"It's hard enough adjusting to college as a freshman," said Hicks, who went to Susquehanna Township High in Harrisburg, Pa. "When you're starting, all of the demands are compounded. I was thinking football all the time. I'd get back to my room after practice, open a textbook to do some reading and go right to sleep."

Hicks, fellow starting tackle Tim Watson and Jason Brown, a linebacker whose return has been slowed by dental surgery, were declared academically ineligible on the eve of the 1994 opener.

It was hard for them to watch the Terps get battered. It was nearly as painful to watch the defense make some meaningful strides behind linebacker Ratcliff Thomas and cornerback Andreal Johnson, who also started as true freshmen in 1993.

"Those guys had already shut down Tulane and some other teams last year, and that's what was so great about being out there with them last week," said Hicks, who passed 14 credits with a 3.0 GPA last spring. "For the first time, I was a part of this defense when it overpowered somebody."

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