UM's Merriman ready to deliver, become a hit

Linebacker may step in, start as a true freshman

August 09, 2002|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - Even if Maryland freshman linebacker Shawne Merriman hadn't grown to 6 feet 3 and 239 pounds, he would stand above all other football players produced by Frederick Douglass High School in Upper Marlboro.

Even when Merriman was a lanky sophomore, he was a fearsome presence, leading his team in tackles and earning the nickname "Pepco" - in reference to the Washington energy company - because he turned the lights out on players hit by him.

"Even at 170 pounds, he would have been the best football player we ever had," said Douglass' Bill Johnson, who coached him over the past three seasons while posting a 26-4 record. "We've never had anyone who's been able to combine the skills with the physical stature like he did. ... We didn't know he was going to put on 50 pounds, but we're glad that he did."

At Maryland, the coaches issue amens to that. With their starting rush linebacker from last season, Mike Whaley, gone for academic reasons, Merriman is expected to start as a true freshman.

"Unlike most freshmen, he comes in big enough, fast enough and strong enough to compete right away," said Al Seamonson, who coaches the outside linebackers. "His battle is to learn the system fast enough to play as a true freshman."

His work at Douglass defending against the pass and run and rushing the quarterback have prepared him for his linebacking role at Maryland.

But it is his physical readiness that stands out. Most freshmen show up for fall camp needing to gain or lose weight. Merriman appears very lean and weighs 6 pounds more than Whaley's listed playing weight from last season.

Looking at Merriman's testing from Monday, Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen said, "I bet he's not 8 percent body fat. ... I don't want to put undue pressure on these kids, but I'm encouraged by that."

It's easy to wonder if Merriman has just stepped out of high school, or college.

"They tell me I'm lying every time I say how old I am," said Merriman, who turned 18 in late May. "No one believes me, not even my friends."

Merriman sports a goatee and multiple tattoos on his arms, and the look works comfortable on him.

His mother, Gloria Williams, stands nearly 5-9 and his biological father is 6-5, but their son was lanky until his later high school years, when he gained 83 pounds and grew 3 inches.

She couldn't believe her eyes as Merriman went from 170 pounds to 205, then to about 230, all within two years. But she could believe the grocery bills. He went through mountains of mashed potatoes. Williams tells of the time when she roasted a pot of chicken for dinner and she figured it was going to last the next three days at least, or at least until a late-night raid on the refrigerator.

"I went back and didn't see anything," she said, seeing her son instead with the last piece. "He was running away from me with that piece of chicken."

Merriman's goal was to look like Washington Redskins linebacker LaVar Arrington. "I knew I had the attitude to play," he said.

Johnson seconded Merriman's self-assessment, saying that while his former player is a joy to be around, he warned that "once you cross that line, he's a different person. I've never had anyone enjoy contact the way he does."

Practices at Douglass were curtailed so that teammates wouldn't get hurt. After games, Merriman would study the tape to see, among other things, which players did not come back after getting hit by him. Those who did not return would be marked on his calendar and he would cite the notches as a credential when he was asked about his statistics.

Those notches are on hiatus, perhaps to be continued later this month if he can beat out sophomores Jamahl Cochran and Jon Condo. For now, he learns what he can from his coaches. His own lights do eventually go out, exhausted by an existence so programmed that he's happy to sleep on a floor with a pillow case.

That makes him ordinary, which he likes.

"No matter how I carry myself, I'm just like anyone else," he said. "They're still going to point at me because I'm a freshman."

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