Terps' Jackson learns on job Struggling secondary needs freshman now

September 19, 1997|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK -- Saturday afternoons in Howard County were never like this.

Tony Jackson could have picked a quieter place than Tallahassee and Florida State's home opener for his first real taste of major-college football.

Nobody messed with Jackson last year, when Wilde Lake High's top cat was regarded as the state's best defensive back, but he entered a danger zone last week, when the Seminoles routed the Terps by 43 points.

"Never in my life have I seen anything like that," said Jackson, who entered the Florida State game as a free safety in the second quarter and rarely exited. "Considering what I'm seeing now, high school was kind of like a practice. Everything happens so much faster."

If it's any consolation to Jackson, it's also happening a little too fast for Ron Vanderlinden.

The Terps' first-year coach would prefer to spoon-feed a true freshman like Jackson, but he just doesn't have enough able-bodied veterans in the secondary.

The defense was entirely too tentative in Tallahassee, and it needs to tighten or tomorrow's Atlantic Coast Conference game with No. 6 North Carolina at Byrd Stadium could be more of the same.

The Tar Heels lit up Maryland for 401 yards passing last year, and that was when the Terps had current Pittsburgh Steeler Chad Scott and three other senior starters in the secondary.

North Carolina puts L.C. Stevens, 6 feet 5, at split end, while Maryland has Lynde Washington, 5-6, at cornerback. Troy Davidson, Maryland's other cornerback, is a converted receiver, but Octavus Barnes, Stevens' backup, has 113 career catches. Flanker Na Brown has 65 career catches, and Maryland free safety Lewis Sanders will be making his third start.

Tar Heels coach Mack Brown said his biggest worry is how to divide time between his two quarterbacks, All-ACC player Chris Keldorf and Gator Bowl MVP Oscar Davenport.

Terps defensive coordinator Wally Ake, meanwhile, must decide how often he'll employ five defensive backs, when Sanders moves to nickel back and Jackson comes in at free safety.

It's beginning to look a lot like 1993, when the Terps started three freshmen in the secondary and set an NCAA record for yards allowed in a season. Maryland was set back by injuries to cornerback Clifton Crosby, who could return as early as next week, and strong safety Shawn Forte, but neither of them had played a down of defense in college, either.

"The exciting part is that Lewis and Troy [Davidson] have three years left, and Lynde and Tony have four years left," Vanderlinden said. "The reality is, these guys have to grow up in a hurry."

Rookies are about the only ones who have made plays for the Terps since the first quarter against Ohio University.

Maryland's only touchdown reception has been by Moises Cruz, a redshirt freshman. The only touchdown run came from LaMont Jordan, a true freshman. And the Terps' only interception in their first two games was by Jackson.

"Tony makes plays," Vanderlinden said. "He won the punt-return job in preseason camp, and that's a pretty gutty job for a freshman to hold. He had an interception and two pass breakups Florida State, and that's significant. The fact is, he has a knack for being where the ball is."

In his senior year at Wilde Lake, Jackson returned two of his four interceptions and both of his fumble recoveries for touchdowns.

A tight end and wide receiver on offense, he scored one of the Wildecats' two touchdowns in a state 2A quarterfinal loss to Middletown, which followed a 10-0 run in the regular season.

An All-Metro performer in football and baseball, Jackson was The Sun's Male Athlete of the Year.

The prospect of playing this year lured Jackson to Maryland instead of Virginia or Wake Forest. Before the veterans reported on Aug. 15, Vanderlinden hinted that Jackson wouldn't be redshirted. He returned a first-quarter punt 15 yards against Ohio, and the coach said it would have gone for a touchdown except for a missed block.

Jackson didn't play defense against Ohio's option, but he was rushed into service at Florida State, which used no huddle and threw at will. The margin might have been worse if not for a fourth-quarter interception by Jackson, whose prep background included a handful of games against passing teams.

"It's not that the coverages are so complex," Jackson said. "It's just that there's so much of it."

Next for Maryland

Opponent: No. 6 North Carolina

Site: Byrd Stadium, College Park

When: Tomorrow, noon

* Line: North Carolina by 23

Young Terps

Wilde Lake's Tony Jackson is one of seven first-year freshmen who played in Maryland's first two games: (*-starter)

Name .. .. .. .. .. Position

Jason Hatala ... .. Reserve WR

Tony Jackson ... .. Punt ret./FS

Kris Jenkins ... .. Reserve DT

LaMont Jordan .. .. Reserve TB

Matt Kalapinski ... H-back*

Doug Patterson . .. Flanker*

Scott Rudolph .. .. Long snapper

Pub Date: 9/19/97

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