COLLEGE PARK -- The young man with the 5 o'clock shadow and the hint of a twang in his voice sits inside the Byrd Stadium press box at mid-afternoon, stating matter-of-factly how perspective gets skewed during a week like this, when he's getting ready to play the most important football game of his life.
"I've had two papers due, and they're probably going to be terrible," Maryland quarterback Shaun Hill said, before his team's anticipated showdown with Florida State on Saturday afternoon in Tallahassee, Fla. "You can't think of anything other than this football game."
The words, though coming just after midterms, sound strange coming from the son of a high school assistant principal, but his single-mindedness has come in handy on the field.
In the past 21 months, it's helped Hill go from being an unwanted junior college quarterback to the leader of a team suddenly challenging for a national title.
It's led him to near mastery of his fourth offensive system in five years, which was displayed last Saturday when he threw for a career-high 323 yards and ran for another 105 during a 59-17 demolition of Duke.
Now, his coach, Ralph Friedgen, said much of the hopes of his 10th-ranked, 7-0 team rest upon Hill, a senior who attracted interest from only a pair of Division II schools looking for a punter when he came out of Parsons High School in Kansas.
"Shaun has to play like he did last week for us to have a chance," Friedgen said. "Plus, he has to do it in front of [80,000] people who don't want him to be successful. I love that. He needs to love it, though."
Love it? You would think he would. It was less than two years ago that Hill was at Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College, with his biggest battles coming against Butler County CC. Some would consider challenging Florida State to be a step up.
When asked to consider the leap from obscure games in 5,000-seat stadiums to this weekend's contest, he said: "I've taken a lot of looks back to where I've been, and I'm proud of it."
Hill gives credit to the coaches and teammates he's had and the opportunities they've created for him. But those same people say diligence drives the success he's had, despite him not being the slickest or most strong-armed quarterback you'll find.
He showed this when he was at Hutchinson, when coach David Wheeler noticed that Hill, competing with five other quarterbacks, immersed himself in the offense. He did that to such an extent that his younger brother, Ryan, wasn't fazed at all when Shaun ended up going to school 1,200 miles from Parsons. He was used to not seeing him around.
"He never went home," Wheeler said. "He watched more film than the coaches did. He stayed here every single day and worked hard."
Wheeler also loved the aura of winning surrounding Hill, the way he could galvanize those around him. He remembers Hill leading the Blue Dragons down the field for a late, game-winning drive in the same way a national-television audience would see him do it for the Terrapins against Georgia Tech two years later.
He showed that same coolness when he showed up at College Park in early 2000, with people wondering who and what he was.
South Carolina had been the only other school to recruit Hill out of junior college. He was discovered by Maryland when the Terps were looking for a cornerback.
At 6 feet 3 and 225 pounds, his size was a departure from the slighter build of most quarterbacks during the Ron Vanderlinden regime. "A lot of people thought I was a tight end or fullback," Hill said.
Then he started throwing the ball. Hmm, teammates said. He started lining up behind center. OK, he's a quarterback, they said. Whatever. But it wasn't until they saw him put the time in, day after day, that they started to take notice.
"Early mornings and late nights," senior linebacker Aaron Thompson said. "People saw that he was so determined and said, `That's the guy I want to be leading my team.' "
In three months, he'd caught incumbent starter Calvin McCall, and only an injury slowed him before he returned in time to lead Maryland to a second-half rally for its biggest victory until this year, a 35-28 win over North Carolina State.
Three weeks after that, when Friedgen replaced Vanderlinden, he had to learn another offensive system, one that put a particularly heavy load on the quarterback.
Instead of weariness, enthusiasm marked Hill's attack of the new playbook, which contained roughly 1,000 pages.
"I knew that I would get it; it's just a matter of putting in the time," he said. "I still don't have it down."
Indeed, Hill's production fluctuates from game to game -- two interceptions against Wake Forest, three touchdowns against Virginia, two interceptions against Georgia Tech, world-beater game against Duke.
The constant has been his ability to make plays at crucial points. When Virginia closed in on Oct. 6, Hill completed three of five passes on a 78-yard drive for a touchdown that deflated the Cavaliers' hopes.
A week later against Georgia Tech, he led a last-minute drive that set up Nick Novak's field goal to tie a game that Maryland ended up winning in overtime.
"I know a lot of people who when they go in the tank, they go in the tank," Friedgen said. "It's a credit to his character and to his competitiveness that he would come into that situation and have his best series of the night."
Maryland vs. Florida State
Who: No. 10 Maryland (7-0) vs. No. 19 Florida State (4-2)
Site: Doak Campbell Stadium, Tallahassee, Fla.
When: Saturday, 3:30 p.m.
TV/Radio: Chs. 2, 7/WBAL (1090 AM)
Line: Florida State by 8