No. 1 for now, Merrills makes run for job

Ex-Wildecat turns upfield with Perry slow to recover

Maryland notebook

August 14, 2002|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - It's tough to make out what it means when Mario Merrills practices with the first-unit offense as tailback for the Maryland football team.

It could mean Terrapins coach Ralph Friedgen genuinely wonders about the progress of star running back Bruce Perry - who has spent most of the past eight months recovering from an abdominal injury - and wants to move on to the next guy in line, which would be Merrills.

It could also mean Friedgen is merely attempting to motivate Perry. It worked last August, when nagging hamstring injuries kept him out of practices before he returned to rush for 1,242 yards and earn Offensive Player of the Year honors in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

"I don't know if we can count on Bruce," said Friedgen, who made somewhat similar comments after Perry sat out several practices a year ago at this time. "We've got a game coming up in three weeks. Right now, Mario Merrills is our starting tailback. ... I'm going to wait until [Perry] can practice. If he can't practice, he can't practice."

Merrills, who starred at Columbia's Wilde Lake before coming to Maryland two years ago, said he doesn't care why the opportunity is here. After waiting, he's simply glad he has the chance.

"No one has any hard feelings," he said, assessing the relationship among the six tailbacks in camp, "but on the field it's a business, and whomever does the best job gets to play."

After rushing for 1,743 yards and 21 touchdowns as a senior at Wilde Lake, Merrills encountered a few surprises when he arrived at his first camp at College Park. He was no longer "the man" as he was accustomed.

Not only was he not the best tailback at Maryland, but in the incoming 2001 recruiting class, fellow back Jason Crawford also was touted as the freshman most likely to make an impact.

With Perry having a dream sophomore season and Crawford the heir apparent at the time, whatever visions Merrills had for his career seemed to take a hit. But despite some frustration, "you suck it up and deal with it," Merrills said. "This has taught me a lot about patience. Everyone has to sit back and not be the man and see what that's like."

Crawford fell out of favor for various reasons, absence in summer workouts among them, and Merrills played well in the spring and, whatever the nature of the concern over Perry, gives the redshirt freshman a chance to emerge.

"I'm trying to fill the role the best I can," he said. "I know that Bruce was hurt, and I'm just going to look at myself as my biggest competition."

Suter shows promise

The good figures have been there for wide receiver Steve Suter: A 41-inch vertical leap, a 340-pound bench press and a 4.34 time in the 40-yard dash, all out of a 5-foot-9 body that weighs 187 pounds.

The bad figures: two meniscus tears in his right knee and a broken finger that ended his first year of play for the Terrapins.

Suter, who played at North Carroll High, is hoping that Maryland fans see more proof of the first numbers and less of the second. Heading into his sophomore season, Suter is expected to share the slot position with Rich Parsons, and to also serve as a possible punt returner.

"He's all-everything on paper," receivers coach James Franklin said, lamenting the injuries that have prevented Suter from being more. "He's starting to see more of the things from the accolades in the weight room."

Miscellaneous

Today marks the first day of practices with full pads. Over the past few days, the team's later practices have been switched to early evening to escape some of the heat with the D.C. area under a code red alert. ... The offensive line took a few temporary hits. Right tackle Matt Crawford and left guard Todd Wike had bouts of a stomach virus and cramping, respectively. ... Cornerback Curome Cox, who dislocated the middle finger on his right hand Monday, is expected to return in 10 to 14 days, with Jamal Chance filling in until Cox's return.

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