No longer anonymous, Downs has made a name for himself

Maryland senior tailback comes up big in first start

College Football

September 13, 2002|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - Chris Downs shifted nervously in his seat, as members of the media converged on him, wishing to hear the thoughts of a football player so unaccustomed to such recognition.

Downs is a fifth-year senior tailback who, until last week's 44-14 rout of visiting Akron, had been a stranger to followers of the Maryland Terrapins. Downs had worked in obscurity since coming to College Park two years ago, by way of Valley Forge (Pa.) Military Academy and College.

And in one week, while veteran Bruce Perry rehabilitated an injured groin muscle, and while he and the rest of Maryland's running-back-by-committee - sophomore Jason Crawford and second-year freshman Mario Merrills - fought for position on the Terps' depth chart, Downs suddenly became the odd man in.

Before getting his first start as a Terp, before rushing for 58 yards on 12 carries and scoring his first Division I touchdown, before sparking Maryland to that blowout victory, Downs had been living anonymously. In two previous years since transferring to Maryland, he had totaled four carries.

A day after the Akron win, he watched a replay of the game. He had not been part of a highlights package since his days at Malvern Prep in Philadelphia. Downs realized the next day that things also were different on campus.

"When people in my classes see me now, they say, `Hey, there's that Downs kid.' My English 393 teacher singled me out in class," said Downs, who turned 23 on March 26. "The last time I did an interview was during spring ball. The last time I saw myself on the highlights was my senior year back in high school.

"A lot of times I sat down and questioned myself. Will I ever have a chance to go out and show them what I can do? Sometimes I thought this was not going to happen. I just came out and practiced hard and crossed my fingers. It worked."

At 5 feet 8, 193 pounds, Downs is not exactly a fearsome sight. He expects Perry to knock him and the rest of the backfield back to the bench soon. But the kid, who had the perseverance to overcome a childhood speech impediment, has got some game.

A shifty, elusive runner with 4.5-second, 40-yard dash speed and excellent strength, Downs was good enough to establish single-season, Philadelphia city records for rushing yards (2,198), rushing touchdowns (29) and total scores (31) as a senior. He was tough enough to thrive at Valley Forge, where he rushed for 2,013 yards and 23 touchdowns as a two-year starter.

"The first six weeks were rough," Downs said of his junior college experience. "We couldn't use phones, computers, couldn't watch TV, couldn't drink soda, could barely eat candy. Had to get up at 5:45 in the morning for push-ups, sit-ups, running. A good experience for me."

Which is exactly the attitude Downs carried as an unknown Terp. Which is partly what led Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen to name Downs a starter eight days ago. Friedgen, upset with mistakes his other backs were committing last week, not to mention the ineffectiveness of Crawford and Merrills in a season-opening loss to Notre Dame, blew his whistle after a play and told Downs he was getting the call against Akron.

"I just saw this kid get better," Friedgen said. "On Thursday, when we were struggling out there and he was still playing good, I just made up my mind that here was a kid who was doing it the way I wanted it done, as far as effort and enthusiasm and exactness. It just kind of fell into place for Chris."

Downs described himself as "shocked, happy, nervous, all of those things rolled into one` upon hearing the news. On Saturday, he quickly relaxed by carrying the ball on each of Maryland's first four plays, good for 31 yards. The drive ended with the first of the Terps' five touchdowns. Then, on his final attempt of the first half with 4:14 left, his one-yard plunge put the Terps in front, 35-7. That gave Downs his first score.

"It did my heart good to see him get a chance," junior right guard Lamar Bryant said. "I always appreciate guys like Chris Downs, who don't whine about getting playing time. I always like blocking for a back who always works hard. You can question his technique, but never his heart or his effort."

Downs' biggest fan might be Terps running backs coach Mike Locksley. He has watched Downs plug away from the outset, beginning with his redshirt year in 2000, when Downs had trouble grasping the Maryland offense and holding onto the football.

Last summer, near the end of camp, Downs fractured a hand and was forced to miss the season's first five games. By then, Perry had emerged as a surprise star and would eventually be the Atlantic Coast Conference Offensive Player of the Year. But after Perry was forced to miss spring football with an abdominal injury suffered in the Orange Bowl loss to Florida, Downs put his increased early practice time to productive use.

"Chris was able to open some eyes in the spring. He's a guy who never moaned about being second-team, third-team, fourth-team," Locksley said. "That's the epitome of being a team player.

"He has some great ability with the ball in his hands, and he has continued to improve. Now he's a guy who has shown you can count on him in a game situation. He just shows people that if you bust your tail and play hard, eventually it will pay off."

Next for Terps

Opponent:No. 5 Florida State (2-0)

Site:Byrd Stadium, College Park

When:Tomorrow, 7:45 p.m.

TV/Radio:ESPN/WBAL (1090 AM)

Line:Florida State by 14

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