Young Terps are crawling in hurry

Lacking seniors, UM has its freshmen play, not sit

October 04, 2002|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - Late in the first half during a season-opening loss to Notre Dame, Maryland linebacker D'Qwell Jackson took down Fighting Irish running back Ryan Grant after a short gain. It was an ordinary, forgettable play, but not to Jackson. Just after beginning his first semester, he had recorded the first tackle of his collegiate career.

Three weeks later, the Terps unleashed tailback Josh Allen in the second half against Eastern Michigan, and Allen earned rave reviews for the speed and toughness he displayed while rushing for 86 yards and his first career touchdown. Not bad for his inaugural appearance.

In that same game, wide receiver Danny Melendez was introduced to the collegiate game by throwing several fine blocks, catching two passes for 15 yards and absorbing a nasty hit in the back that marked his first bruise at the Division I level. He is now part of Maryland's regular receiver rotation.

From the opening of two-a-day practices last summer, Maryland could not hide its youth, what with only 11 seniors on its roster. As they head into their sixth game at West Virginia tomorrow, the last stop before taking on the rest of their Atlantic Coast Conference schedule, the Terps (3-2) are learning much about their future by testing their youngest players right now.

"We're finding out how much we miss those seniors from last year, but there are some young guys getting thrown into it now who are really going to be players," senior center Todd Wike said. "By the middle or end of the season, we're expecting those freshmen to act like older guys."

Typically, freshmen spend their first year as redshirts, adjusting to college by absorbing playbooks, getting stronger and gaining a comfort zone, but ineligible to perform on game day. From the rigors of the classroom to the strain of the weight room to dorm living, endless practices and the longest road trips of their lives to date, there is much to digest.

But to players such as Allen, Jackson and Melendez, there will be no redshirt season as they learn football at this level. The same goes for wide receiver/kick return man Jo Jo Walker, offensive tackle Stephon Heyer and linebackers Shawne Merriman and William Kershaw, who each also have burned their redshirt years (which gives inactive players an extra year of eligibility) by playing in 2002.

"You have to set realistic goals," said Melendez, who is wearing a flak jacket to protect his midsection after taking that shot to his 6-foot-2, 175-pound frame. "There were many days this summer when I was lost. My goals were to learn as much as I could and to have fun. To play as early as I did was just icing on the cake."

"I was all hung up on redshirting before I came in. But once two-a-days came around, I told myself to get in there and cause some havoc. I knew I could play with these guys," said Jackson, who, as Leon Joe's backup at weak-side linebacker, has made the most of early-season opportunities. After playing the entire second half against Notre Dame and racking up 11 tackles, he has gone on to rank fourth on the team with 29.

"I remember when I made my first tackle, my eyes lit up," Jackson added. "I'm still in awe. The big crowds. Things like getting [police] escorts on our bus rides from the hotel. I'm still surprised by it. But I'm getting used to the pace and thinking quicker now."

All of which was part of coach Ralph Friedgen's plan. Recognizing his squad's youthful flavor, Friedgen scheduled Akron, Eastern Michigan and Wofford in September, expecting to put as many younger players into the mix as possible. That included a bunch of first-year players.

"This is a team that's under development. I think it's time [the freshmen] took this step. They're helping us build some depth," Friedgen said. "You only learn through your [game] experience. They've been in the fray, so it's not going to be their first time again. They're pretty good football players. The other thing that's impressed me is they're pretty smart kids the way they've picked things up."

Some of the freshmen have especially good field mentors. For example, Kershaw, a middle linebacker, backs up E.J. Henderson, the reigning ACC Player of the Year. Heyer plays behind Matt Crawford, a three-year starter at right tackle. Melendez and Walker closely watch senior receiver Scooter Monroe.

Then there is Allen, who backs up senior Chris Downs and has pushed his way up the depth chart in light of the lingering injuries to tailback Bruce Perry, who has yet to play while recovering from a torn groin muscle and could miss the entire season.

"I've been preparing to play college football all my life. I wasn't really concerned with the depth chart coming in," said the 5-11, 194-pound Allen, who is averaging 6.2 yards on 24 carries, with three touchdowns. "Wherever you go, you've got to compete, and if you worry about stuff like that too much, you're not going to get the most out of your ability."

Gary Blackney, Maryland's defensive coordinator and secondary coach, said he admires the way newcomers such as his precocious linebackers have taken to the college game.

"You have to have patience with them. Occasionally, they revert back to being freshmen and hit the wall. You have to back up and remember they are 18 or 19 and they've only been on campus for eight or nine weeks," Blackney said.

"The bottom line is if we didn't feel they could contribute to us having success in the ACC, we wouldn't have burned their redshirt years. They wouldn't be playing."

NOTE: Junior wide receiver Jafar Williams aggravated a left shoulder injury at practice yesterday and is questionable for tomorrow's game. Friedgen said he will have X-rays today.

Next for Terps

Opponent:West Virginia (3-1)

Site:Mountaineer Field, Morgantown, W.Va.

When:Tomorrow, noon

TV/Radio:ESPN2/WBAL (1090 AM)

Line:West Virginia by 3

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