Terrapin no longer magnet for criticism

Corner Okanlawon making big strides

September 21, 2001|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - Those looking for a Maryland football player to pick on must search elsewhere. For the time being, Tony Okanlawon is no longer an option.

The object of criticism the past two years, the senior cornerback from Forestville has attracted praise this season for his play, including intercepting two passes in the Terrapins' first two games.

Okanlawon's performance is simply a continuation of a strong training camp in August that left coaches gushing.

"He's now playing with a lot of confidence, and I'm proud of him - just the strides he's made and how he's improved," Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen said.

Said Okanlawon: "Being more experienced is one key, but also learning from mistakes. When things happened, I think I always learned from what I did."

In a sense, secondary mate Rod Littles said, Okanlawon is achieving proficiency on his own schedule, varying from projections when he became a starter as a true freshman in 1998.

The transition from high school football to the college game required a period of adjustment, Okanlawon said. "I had to grow up pretty fast," said Okanlawon, who played at DeMatha. "It was just a different approach. You have to study a lot of different things instead of just winging it."

Okanlawon fell short of the expectations that come with being a freshman starter. Injuries were a problem in his sophomore season, and he was benched briefly the next year. Often, he would be in position to make plays that didn't get made.

One of those plays came at the end of the 1999 season, when Billy McMullen leaped over Okanlawon for a touchdown catch that capped a Virginia comeback and denied Maryland a bowl appearance.

Okanlawon said he retains the memory of that play as a motivational tool. But that moment also made him the symbol, perhaps unfairly, of a secondary that yielded 253 passing yards a game last year.

"I play a spotlight position," Okanlawon said. "When everything goes great, everyone's patting you on the back. When things aren't going so well, you're always looked upon as if you're not doing this right or you're not doing that right."

So, despite making 40 tackles last season, Okanlawon found himself on the list of suspect players about whom Friedgen often was questioned.

Despite the adverse attention - and the fact that he came out of the 2000 season as an incumbent starter - Okanlawon found an opportunity in Friedgen's arrival as head coach in November.

"With a new coach, it's a new beginning for everyone," said Okanlawon, a family studies major. "They know you, but at the same time, they don't know anything about you."

Defensive coordinator Gary Blackney said he didn't ask much about Okanlawon's struggles in previous years. He was merely interested in what the senior could do now.

What he found was good.

"Tony had an exceptional preseason," Blackney said. "He's playing with a lot more confidence; he understands what his role is."

Just as Okanlawon says he didn't deserve all the blame for the secondary's past woes, he also deflects much of the credit for his recent successes.

The new defense that Blackney has installed - with near-constant blitzes - has burdened Okanlawon and fellow corner Curome Cox with a demand to prevent big plays, but also has given them the opportunity to make big plays.

"There's the defensive line helping me, helping us as a whole," Okanlawon said. "Everyone was contributing, putting us in position to make great plays."

Next for Maryland

Opponent: Wake Forest (2-0)

Site: Groves Stadium, Winston-Salem, N.C.

When: Tomorrow, 3:30 p.m.

Radio: WBAL (1090 AM)

Line: Maryland by 6

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