Terps aim to close elite gap

Orange rout shows UM a rung below best

College Football

January 04, 2002|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

MIAMI - No matter how far they had come, the Maryland Terrapins found out in Wednesday night's Orange Bowl how far away they are from the Florida team that embarrassed them, 56-23.

But yesterday, the team's players and coaches vowed to cover the remaining distance between themselves and the national elite, a status the Terps temporarily enjoyed with their Atlantic Coast Conference championship and Bowl Championship Series berth.

Some, like junior cornerback Curome Cox believed the Terps - who went 10-2 this season - are due for another trip here this time next year.

"We have the same amount of talent coming back," Cox said yesterday as he and his teammates prepared for their return trip to College Park. "I feel sorry for the seniors, but I think this is a steppingstone for the future."

Others believe the losses from this year's senior class, accounting for 19 players, make it unlikely that Maryland can repeat the success that had the Terrapins ranked No. 6 heading into the Orange Bowl.

With quarterback Shaun Hill, center Melvin Fowler, linebacker Aaron Thompson, nose tackle Charles Hill and strong safety Tony Jackson among the departing, coach Ralph Friedgen said his staff has "a tremendous amount to rebuilding to do."

In addition to the seniors, eight starters among them, the Terps may lose their best overall player, inside linebacker E.J. Henderson. After recording 150 tackles (a school-record 25 behind the line of scrimmage) and earning ACC Player of the Year and first-team All-America honors, the redshirt junior from Aberdeen may decide to enter the NFL draft. He is a senior academically.

Henderson, who recorded eight tackles and one sack Wednesday night, said he hadn't made a decision yet. Asked about his plans, he said, "Go home. Take care of my body. Talk to some people."

The possibility of Henderson leaving is only one reason weekends like this are vital for the Maryland coaching staff, which will entertain 11 recruits on campus visits.

Friedgen would like to make a run on linebackers, but in general, he wants to see an upgrade in the program's talent. This commitment was reaffirmed while watching his team get dismantled by the superiorly talented Gators.

"It's over, and we have to go recruiting," Friedgen said when asked where the Maryland program goes from there. Mindful of the Gators, he added. "We have to do what they've done."

The game was also a flash point for some of the players who'll return next season. Though the Terps came into the game with no choice but to ignore the talent gap between them and Florida, they had to recognize that the gap existed.

Not only were the Gators quicker, faster and sometimes bigger, they also often bested Maryland at basic things like blocking and tackling.

"I guess you could say that was amazing," said freshman and starting left tackle C.J. Brooks. "You're not used to it when you're doing so well and everyone's telling you that you're so fundamentally sound. We have so many years to go. It's a foreshadowing of what's going to happen in the future."

Those at the end of the road, the seniors, are comfortable with their legacy at Maryland, the humiliation of a 33-point loss in their final game notwithstanding.

While the ending wasn't ideal, the venue was, particularly for a group that accomplished much this season, big and small, that it hadn't before: more than five wins, a league title, a national network television appearance.

"I'm ready to reflect and relax for a couple of days," said senior tailback Marc Riley, who scored two of the Terps' three touchdowns Wednesday night. "We had a great season, but came up on the short end of the stick.

It was disappointing, Riley said, but life would go on.

Indeed, when Jackson went to his room after the game, he followed his first instinct to turn on SportsCenter, thinking more of routine than of what he'd view. When the Florida highlight reel came on, he might have flinched, but he did not turn.

What Jackson watched was a recap of the ninth straight January bowl appearance by the Gators, who compete for the national championship every season.

"That's where Maryland's trying to get to," Hill said. "I don't think we should hang our heads, because this is our first year of rebuilding. They've been a perennial power for years; this is our first year up here hanging with the big boys.

"Sooner or later, we're going to get to that level."

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