COLLEGE PARK -- Can the Maryland football team make it to a bowl for the first time since 1990?
That was the key question as the Terps opened practice yesterday with fewer doubts than in coach Mark Duffner's previous four years at Maryland. The Terps return their kicker, seven starters on offense and eight on defense, and 10 of those 16 are seniors. They are coming off a 6-5 record, only their second winning mark in a decade, and have shown steady improvement the last two seasons.
Will the progress continue? Here are 10 questions that could help provide some answers.
1. What changes has Duffner made?
The offense shifted from the run-and-shoot to multiple looks following a severe breakdown last fall. A fullback and tight end are in; one-back sets are out.
Before they got into formations, however, Duffner took things a little more slowly than he did last year. The first two days of practice in 1995 included pads, and ended with eight players hospitalized with or treated for heat-related problems. This time, the Terps won't put on pads until tomorrow.
2. Where will the Terps be most improved?
The offensive line. Senior tackle Mark Motley was one of the heat victims last August: He developed a urinary infection during a three-night hospital stay and was never the same.
With Motley, the Terps were green on the line. Without him, they were as inexperienced as any unit in the nation. Left tackle Darryl Gilliam, left guard Pat Ward, right guard Aaron Henne and right tackle John Feugill had never played a down of offense in college. It showed in the confusion of the Great Quarterback Shuffle of 1995, but they should be steadier this time.
3. Will the team's chemistry be better?
There is no debate that Brian Cummings is the man at quarterback. As a redshirt sophomore last year, he got the Terps off to a 4-0 start. That's as many games as Scott Milanovich had won over the two previous years.
Once Milanovich returned from an NCAA suspension for gambling, he brought his record-setting arm into the offense, but the Terps lost their edge and with it five of their last seven games.
Before Milanovich's return, the offense played over its head and the defense was as good as any at Maryland in a decade. Upon his return, everyone chafed under the constant questions about the revolving door at quarterback.
4. How is Cummings' arm?
Cummings didn't pitch for the Terps' baseball team following the end of football's spring practice, and he sat out summer baseball for the first time since he was 10. He said he wasn't injured, but that his arm was "dead."
"I just felt I needed some rest," Cummings said. "Between spring practice and baseball, maybe I didn't have time to recuperate. I'd been playing baseball since I was 6, but football became more important to me. I rested my arm for a while, but then I concentrated on the weight room and worked on my mechanics. My arm feels fine."
5. What happens if Cummings gets hurt?
Then the Terps would go with a quarterback who has never played a down of Division I-A football.
Keon Russell split time at Division II American International two years ago, transferred to Maryland and moved to No. 2 on the depth chart during spring practice. He'll try to hold off two redshirt freshmen, Texan Trey Evans and Floridian Ken Mastrole.
6. Who will be the hardest player to replace?
Jermaine Lewis, the fastest player ever at Maryland and a record-setter as a receiver and kick returner, is now a rookie with the Ravens.
For four years, the Terps recruited for the run-and-shoot, so there is plenty of depth at wide receiver, led by Geroy Simon and Mancel Johnson, who is suspended for the first two games because of some on-campus thefts. True freshman Harold Westley, the second-fastest prep sprinter ever to put on a Maryland uniform, could help with some of the return work.
7. Where are the Terps the strongest?
Take your pick from the defensive line or secondary.
Tackle Johnnie Hicks and captain Al Wallace, who set a record in the bench press for Maryland ends on Friday, head a group of five veterans on the line. The secondary has three returning starters, and A. J. Johnson and Chad Scott are one of the best cornerback pairs in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Johnson will end his college career at the Senior Bowl, while Scott has been invited to the East-West Shrine Game.
8. Can Maryland score on Clemson?
Duffner's first season, 1992, ended in a bonanza of points as the Terps upset Clemson, 53-23. The Tigers haven't forgotten, and they have shut out Maryland three straight years.
An inability to play smash-mouth against rugged teams like Clemson is one reason the offense was reworked. Leading rusher Buddy Rodgers may learn the fullback assignments, but converted defensive lineman Mario Chavez filled in admirably there last year when the Terps surprised N.C. State with the I-formation. He said the position is his.
9. How many games will the Terps win?