Home victory for Maryland in recruiting

Regional standouts help UM football put together highly regarded class

`First time they controlled state'

Gwynn Park's Jefferson is key

loss of Abiamiri biggest disappointment

February 06, 2003|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - Maryland's football program checked off a recruiting shopping list yesterday that gave the Terps their best class in recent memory.

Needing to bolster both lines while protecting their home turf, the Terps largely accomplished their tasks on the first day for signing national letters of intent. Seven of the team's 21 players signed, including top-rated linebacker Wesley Jefferson from Gwynn Park High in Brandywine, are regarded as among the top 25 players in the nation at their position, according to Tom Lemming of ESPN.com.

Maryland's showing is a significant improvement over last year, when its Orange Bowl season got coaches into top prospects' homes, but where they still were working against 10 years of not going to a bowl. As the team followed a 10-2 season with an 11-3 mark in 2002, players such as Jefferson took the program seriously.

"Last year, kids had their minds made up [to bypass Maryland]," Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen said. "All of our competitors had the excuse of, `Can they [the Terps] go better than one in a row?' They don't have that excuse anymore."

Still, the late loss of Victor Abiamiri of Gilman - the nation's top defensive end prospect - represented a major disappointment for a program that had interest in him for four years. He joined teammate Ambrose Wooden at Notre Dame while eschewing the team that already has his brothers, Rob and Paschal.

Abiamiri's decision came amid a university investigation into an allegation that inside linebackers coach Rod Sharpless gave him $300. The alleged payment, which would constitute an NCAA violation, led to Sharpless' resignation and cast a bittersweet light onto an otherwise strong effort.

National recruiting analysts rated Maryland's class anywhere from No. 14 in the nation to No. 30.

Analyst Max Emfinger of TheInsiders.com rated Maryland's class as the 14th best in the nation. He said landing Abiamiri - in addition to Jefferson - would have given Maryland two recruits who he regards among the top 30 high school players in the nation.

"Not many teams have one," Emfinger said. "LSU is my top team, and they only have one."

Lemming said Maryland's class would probably be 28th or 29th. Bobby Burton of Rivals.com dropped the Terps' class from No. 18 to No. 27 after the losses of Abiamiri and Wooden.

"Sure, there are four or five more I would like to have," Friedgen said. "I'm greedy, but I'm happy with the players we have."

Lemming, Burton and Emfinger all rated Maryland's class as its finest since they started tracking college football recruiting. Emfinger has been tracking the longest, for 29 years.

Jefferson is the highlight, ranked as high as the nation's seventh best player overall. The 6-foot-2, 231-pound athlete recorded 149 tackles as a senior at Gwynn Park and has a 32-inch vertical leap. Lemming compared him to a "young Ray Lewis."

Friedgen spoke highly of Jefferson, who might replace All-America linebacker E.J. Henderson, a senior last fall.

"Every hit is a great hit. He reminds me of a player who just played here who isn't playing here anymore," Friedgen said, alluding to Henderson. "There's a need. There's a hole that needs to be addressed."

While Jefferson is a possible star, the most important acquisitions came on the lines, where Maryland struggled most with numbers last season. The team had 13 offensive linemen (most teams have 17 or more), and needed two walk-ons to play on the defensive line for most of the Peach Bowl.

Lemming rates Burtonsville's Conrad Bolston of St. John's in Washington as 12th among offensive guards, though he is expected to play defensive tackle. The Terps scored a coup by picking up 6-5, 290-pound offensive guard Donnie Woods out of Tampa, Fla., and 6-6, 325-pound offensive tackle Brandon Nixon of Pottstown, Pa., ranked 18th and 25th at their positions, respectively.

"Donnie Woods and Brandon Nixon, they could have gone anywhere in the country," Burton said.

The Terps landed four of the top seven players in the Baltimore-Washington area. They picked up tight end Vernon Davis of Dunbar of Washington and Mount St. Joseph wide receiver Keon Lattimore in addition to Bolston and Jefferson, but missed Abiamiri, Wooden and Bowie running back Barrington Edwards (Louisiana State). Davis is the nation's 56th best player, Lemming said.

A notch lower, Emfinger raved about Alexandria's Robert Armstrong, a 320-pound defensive tackle who originally signed with Virginia but played at Fork Union Academy, saying "he wasn't blocked this year."

Maryland also gets two DeMatha players: quarterback Ryan Mitch and defensive back Josh Wilson.

"It was the first time that they controlled the state - it was a great year in Maryland, and they took advantage of that," Lemming said. "I was impressed with the way they went about what they did. They made sure everyone knew that they should stay out."

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