Perceptions, tacklers don't down UM's Perry

Sophomore tailback sheds `soft' tag, excels

College Football

September 06, 2001|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

A couple weeks into training camp, Bruce Perry's tenuous hold on Maryland's starting tailback job was slipping away. Ailing hamstrings separated Perry from most of his teammates, relegating him to a pack of injured players who went through a set of grueling calisthenics while the conditioning staff watched.

The barrel rolls, performed on artificial turf under a scorching sun, were Perry's breaking point. He pulled off his helmet and, with an anguished face, spewed a river of invective before asking, "What does this have to do with the game?"

In Perry's case, plenty. Motivated to leave the barrel rolls behind, he was back in practice the next day and went on to clearly establish himself as the top back, paving the way for his 21-carry, 116-yard performance in Saturday's opening win over North Carolina.

"I thought Bruce Perry ran very well," coach Ralph Friedgen said. "I like a guy who runs north-south [like Perry does], and he was making guys miss. I think in the last three scrimmages we've had, he had gotten better and better."

Perry, his family and friends say of the 5-foot-9, 190-pound sophomore, seems to thrive when obstacles present themselves, particularly when those roadblocks involve perceptions.

The barrel rolls served to maintain conditioning of injured players, as well as to separate the truly injured from goldbrickers. Perry was seen as being soft and was on his way out of favor with Friedgen.

"I felt like I was in the doghouse," said Perry, who was in a battle with senior Marc Riley and freshman Jason Crawford for the right to replace LaMont Jordan. "I didn't feel as if he could count on me."

For Perry, the son of a fireman and a detective, it wasn't the first time challenges stood in the way of football, going back to his days as a 12-year-old in Pop Warner.

Kevin Perry would put young Bruce in a sauna to sweat weight off to meet the league's 122-pound limit. Often, Bruce didn't make it.

"When I started him playing, he was a bigger kid," the father said. "He would literally start crying because he couldn't play."

Speed was never an issue. He ran for the New Dimensions track club in Northeast Philadelphia along with current Terrapins teammate Jafar Williams, running a 10.4 in the 100 meters at the AAU Junior Nationals.

Teammate Guilian Gary talked this week about Perry's speed, which he witnessed while blocking as a wide receiver Saturday.

"He hits the holes fast, and sometimes it throws us off," Gary said. "I'm trying to cut off the safeties [upfield], and, all of a sudden, he's right there next to me."

Durability became a question mark when Perry seemed smaller than his high school opponents. But in his senior year at George Washington High, he played with a torn meniscus, fibrous cartilage within the knee.

Each week, doctors drained fluid from the knee, which swelled to the size of a tennis ball. He felt he had teammates he didn't want to let down, but also said, "I realized that if I didn't play that season, my chances to play [in college] would be slim to none."

Spurning 40 other scholarship offers, he came to Maryland with high school teammates Williams and Scott Smith. As a true freshman, he made a strong enough impression - running for 93 yards on eight carries against West Carolina - that he sat out his second year as a redshirt. Another season sitting behind Jordan would be a waste.

But after a year of rest, Perry had to win over a new coach, Friedgen, who made plain his preference for a big, powerful back like Riley or Crawford. Perry, in contrast, was a small, jitterbug-type back who wears his hair like a 1950s teen idol.

"When I first saw him, I thought he was a little pretty boy," said reserve quarterback Latrez Harrison, now one of Perry's best friends. "He had the good hair."

In spring practice, Perry compounded the problem by running exactly as people would expect a frilly back to run. There was too much dancing.

So, despite outperforming Riley in the spring game - 60 yards on nine carries compared with 22 yards on six carries - Perry entered camp as the No. 2 running back.

"I formed an opinion on how I saw Bruce Perry run in the spring," Friedgen said, explaining his earlier decision. "But he ran the way I wanted him to on Saturday."

Perry began changing his running style after his days away with injury, cognizant of the hole he felt he'd dug himself and of the consequences if he didn't get out.

He'd already been an understudy for two seasons and could have been one for the rest of his career here. "I just put all my eggs in one basket and said, `Let's go.' "

Though he intends to use Riley and Crawford liberally, Friedgen was impressed by Perry's improvement in each scrimmage leading up to the opener, noting what he saw as surprising strength.

Williams, however, saw it as anything but a shock. "When people question Bruce's ability ... he's out to show that he can do what they think he can't do," Williams said. "His size isn't really an issue."

"When you go out and run for 116 yards," Perry said, "people look at you differently."

Next for Terps

Opponent: Eastern Michigan

Site: Byrd Stadium, College Park

When: Saturday, 6 p.m.

Radio: WBAL (1090 AM), WTEM (980 AM)

Line: Terps by 24

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