COLLEGE PARK - Of the many questions that swirled around Maryland before its season opener against North Carolina yesterday, one of the larger ones involved a replacement for LaMont Jordan at tailback.
Now, it may be a question of who will back up Bruce Perry.
The sophomore, starting his first game since joining the program in 1999, solidified his grip on the No. 1 role by rushing 21 times for a career-high 116 yards in the Terrapins' 23-7 victory over North Carolina at Byrd Stadium.
For Perry, yesterday's stirring performance was an ample reward for being red-shirted last season.
"I've always said that good things come to those who wait, and I've been waiting a while," he said with a laugh. "I've been waiting a long time to get on that field and play football. It felt great."
Perry became the first Maryland back to compile more than 100 yards on the ground since Jordan, a second-round pick of the New York Jets last spring, gained 101 yards against the Tar Heels last November.
Against North Carolina, which had allowed just 108 total rushing yards to third-ranked Oklahoma last weekend, Perry demonstrated an eye for finding holes and then, once through them, making smart cutbacks.
On the run that put him over 100 yards with about 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter, he powered through a hole in the middle and broke several arm tackles for a gain of 21 yards. On the ensuing play, he evaded more Tar Heel defenders in picking up 12 more.
At 5 feet 9 and 190 pounds, Perry said he particularly enjoys breaking tackles for gains.
"I think that because of my size and stature, they don't expect that," he said. "They expect me to move. But when I do hit them, I'm hoping to get some extra yards."
Earlier in the quarter, he might have reached the end zone from 19 yards if he hadn't been turned 180 degrees and ended up running backwards for 12 yards and a big first down.
Three plays later, senior quarterback Shaun Hill connected on a five-yard scoring pass with junior wide receiver Scooter Monroe.
"I just broke off and tried to maintain my balance," Perry said of that play. "We needed the first down."
Curiously, Perry never scored a touchdown yesterday. He was pulled from red-zone situations in favor of senior fullback Marc Riley, who converted the Terrapins' final score with 6:35 left in the final period.
"The situation called for a big back in the red zone and on the goal line," Perry said. "I'm all for that. In the end, it's about us winning and scoring points - however we do it is fine by me."
Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen didn't disguise his feelings in the preseason that he was less than pleased with Perry's style of running. Friedgen, who admits that he prefers big backs who run north-south over shifty rushers, said the differences between Perry and Riley were noticeable.
"Marc is a Steady Eddie, doesn't make mistakes," Friedgen said. "Bruce can break tackles. That's why we decided to play them both."
Perry did not have a faultless day. On second down and 10, about six minutes into the third quarter, he ran onto the field when 11 Maryland players were already there.
The Terrapins were assessed a penalty for having too many players on the field, and Friedgen could be seen yelling at his young tailback on the sidelines.
Reminded of that penalty afterward, Perry was highly critical of himself. "I shouldn't have been out there," he said. "I wasn't thinking. It will never happen again."
"He made a lot of mental mistakes today," Friedgen said. "Sometimes they hurt us today and not in a situation where he was carrying the ball."
But the coach remained impressed by Perry's running and put to rest any doubt about who was the starting tailback.
"That's his to lose," Friedgen said.
"He played incredible," senior center Melvin Fowler Jr. said. "I'm so proud of Bruce because he works extremely hard, and you love to see good people succeed."
The backup role may be up for grabs between Riley, who carried the ball 10 times for 30 yards, and freshman Jason Crawford, who gained 21 yards on just five carries in Maryland's final series.
Whoever starts, Perry said the backfield unit would be united on and off the field.
"Whether it's me, Marc, or Jason, we can all get it done," he said.