Friedgen clear from Day 1: No position on team is gift

Competition is byword as Terps open practice

April 03, 2003|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - In just two years, Maryland's football program has become one of the better teams of the Atlantic Coast Conference, which it once floundered in, with a 20-5 record and two national top-15 finishes.

As its teams have gotten tougher, it has become just as tough to become a Terp, coach Ralph Friedgen said yesterday in remarks before the squad started spring practice yesterday.

"Everything is going to be competitive," said Friedgen, who said he expects to have 97 players participate in the sessions, which will end with the spring game on April 26.

"Just to be invited back, because I can bring only 105, it's going to be competitive. So whether you're a walk-on, fighting for a scholarship, or if you're competing for a position ... this has been three years in the making."

The most closely watched battle might be at E.J. Henderson's old middle-linebacker position, but improved competition in general might be most apparent at tailback.

Just three springs ago, Maryland football fans waited anxiously to find out whether LaMont Jordan's academic troubles would sink the hopes of a six-win season in 2000. Jordan slipped quickly into the starting lineup once his grade situation stabilized.

In contrast, Bruce Perry's efforts in 2001 - good enough for Offensive Player of the Year - bought him scant comfort in 2002, as the best he could do in his return from a groin injury was to platoon with Chris Downs. With Downs gone, Perry could end up bestowing his generosity on Josh Allen, who scored eight touchdowns on 60 carries.

"Whether or not Bruce is healthy, he's going to be challenged," Friedgen said of Perry, who rushed for 341 yards last year. "We're starting to see the depth we've wanted to have."

The result is players who may have to change positions to find action in games. Former quarterback Chris Kelley is now a safety. Latrez Harrison moved from signal-caller to receiver. The longest line is possibly at fullback, where former linebackers Ricardo Dickerson and Maurice Smith and tailback Jason Crawford are in competition with Bernie Fiddler to replace James Lynch and Chad Killian.

Fiddler, fittingly, experimented with linebacking last spring when he sat behind Lynch and Killian.

Flexibility comes as high school players - in and out of the state - have responded to the program's success since 2001. Miami, Texas, Oklahoma and Marshall are the other schools with back-to-back, 10-win seasons such as the Terps have recorded.

Despite losing two Baltimore players to Notre Dame (including one, Victor Abiamiri, in the wake of a recruiting violation), seven of Maryland's 21 incoming players were nationally rated at their positions.

"We just got a call this week from a kid from California. He wanted to transfer in," said Friedgen, who said the program has gotten more interest from Texas players than those from Florida. "We'd seen you on television, and we liked what we'd seen on TV. When you play nationally and do well, people start to pick up on you."

Second-year players William Kershaw and Reggie Holmes are vying with Leon Joe to replace Henderson, who had 325 tackles over his last two seasons. All-American Wesley Jefferson, from Brandywine's Gwynn Park, is another candidate.

Joe, who had 103 tackles from the weakside position in 2002, reportedly wanted the first crack at the middle or "mike" spot. Friedgen said Joe - a starter the last two years - might have a more difficult time than he's had in the past.

"Weakside linebacker, no one gets to block them," he said. "[Joe] is going to find that it's not as easy as a mike. They've got to take the center on, and then the fullback and then some tackles coming in on them. But he thinks that it's the glory position."

Friedgen refrained from commenting on the controversy over Abiamiri, which involved cash payments totaling $335 and caused the ouster of former assistant Rod Sharpless.

"All I know is that our review is still with the NCAA," Friedgen said. "That's all I know. I really can't comment any more."

NOTES: Wide receiver and punt returner Steve Suter of North Carroll suffered a partial tear of the lateral meniscus in his left knee during a recent workout and won't practice this spring. He is expected to return for the fall sessions in August. ... Friedgen, who will turn 56 on Friday, is expected to have hip-replacement surgery as the result of arthritis in his right hip. He hopes the operation will help with the pain in his back, which has made it difficult for him to move.

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