Terps understudies may again be cast in expanded roles

Defense, offense counts on specialized help, but roster has changed

College Football

August 20, 2002|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - Baseball has its relievers, basketball its sixth men, hockey its penalty-killers. All tend to be more celebrated and less disposable than those who lurk beyond the starting lineup on a football team.

"I wouldn't say I'm satisfied," said Maryland sophomore linebacker Andrew Henley, who hopes to someday parlay his reserve role into something larger. "You can't settle for being a backup, because if you do that, that's all you're going to be."

That said, the Terrapins' breakout players this season could be fewer of the front-line stars like Bruce Perry or E.J. Henderson and more of those like Henley, who may see fewer than 20 plays per game.

In Maryland's 10-2 season of 2001, reserves excelled not only on special teams, but also found their way onto the field in other ways. Rod Littles and Tyrone Stewart made names for themselves as fifth and sixth defensive backs on passing downs. As a short-yardage tailback, Marc Riley scored 10 touchdowns, equaling the number by Perry while carrying the ball roughly a third as much.

"We had guys who were role players and played their roles very well," Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen said. "Littles came in as a nickel back [a fifth defensive back], and we treated him as a starter."

Situations act as catalysts for the introduction of players. On defense, it's hoped that players such as Jamal Chance, Andrew Smith, Curtis Williams or Ray Custis can replace Littles on passing situations or that Scott Smith or Landon Jones can be effective pass rushers.

Slotbacks Steve Suter (North Carroll) and Rich Parson will be the most visible non-starters on offense, but players such as fullback Bernie Fiddler, tight end Derek Miller and tailback Jason Crawford can also grow into specialized roles, if not more, this season.

"The offense is going to substitute personnel groupings by the situation. If it's short yardage, you want a bunch of big guys in there. If it's long yardage, you want your smaller, faster guys in there," offensive coordinator Charlie Taaffe said. "It's like baseball where you have your closer, your middle reliever - it's become extremely specialized."

Stewart, a senior, was relatively unknown until last year's opener against North Carolina, when he came in on a long-yardage play and tackled a Tar Heel in the end zone to give Maryland a lead it never relinquished.

Junior Fiddler sits behind Chad Killian and James Lynch on the fullback depth chart, yet plays in short-yardage situations in addition to special teams. His family in New Jersey still remembers his getting attention on a nationally televised game last year against Clemson.

"My family was so happy when they saw the Clemson game and [TV analyst] Bob Golic circled me on the goal line and said, `Look at this block,' " said Fiddler. "People who know football, they recognize the small things. Even though goal line is a small part, it's an important part."

Henley, an undersized player with a growing reputation for making plays, is an undersized understudy for "Will" or inside linebacker Leon Joe.

In addition to special teams duties, he needs to spell players such as Joe.

"In football, the best teams in football are the deepest teams," he said, "teams who can keep fresh players on the field."

Defensive line coach Dave Sollazzo made depth a point of emphasis with his group throughout the past eight months, particularly because the Terrapins were thin last year. In 2001, the team could count on only four defensive linemen for three positions.

Starting defensive tackle C.J. Feldheim said before camp that unless Maryland established better reserves, he would expect to average 70 plays this season, in contrast to his 40 per game when current starter Randy Starks was his backup.

"We were fortunate last year," Sollazzo said, hoping that late bloomers Scott Smith and Jones can become dependable backups this season. "If we can rotate on a consistent basis, guys are going to make more plays because they're going to be fresh. That's our goal. It needs to happen this year."

With so many players involved and in so many different roles, Friedgen said, morale gets a boost. "It helps the spirit of the team," he said.

Defensive back Stewart said he's pleased with the space he's carved out, especially if it means a part in the team's success.

"We're not worried about getting all the fame or the hype," Stewart said. "All we're worried about is W's, and we're counting them up one at a time."

NOTES: Starting cornerback Curome Cox returned to practice yesterday after missing a week with a dislocated finger on his right hand. ... Friedgen said the Terrapins will hold a closed scrimmage at 4 p.m. today, after the 71-play scrimmage Saturday. ... He still describes quarterback competition between Scott McBrien and Chris Kelley as close and will decide today or tomorrow. ... Tailback Perry is expected to be available for the opener against Notre Dame Aug. 31, though how long he can play is still unclear.

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