Merriman becoming bright light for Terps

College football: Sophomore Shawne Merriman is earning a reputation as one of Maryland's hardest hitters.

October 03, 2003|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | Kevin Van Valkenburg,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - On Shawne Merriman's right arm, in blue ink, there is a tattoo of a light switch. A hand, with a single extended finger, has just flipped the switch to read: Off.

Lights out, the tattoo reads, in perfect cursive script.

Call it the rare example of body art imitating life.

"Kids in high school used to tell me that's what I did, is knock people's lights out," said Merriman, who was a domminant player at Frederick Douglass High School in Upper Marlboro. "Since the hurricane knocked everyone's lights off, I've been getting jokes left and right. It's been pretty funny."

The tattoo, however, tells only a slice of the story. If all Merriman did was specialize in violent collisions, it would be enough. But these days, the 6-foot-3, 245-pound sophomore is everywhere, running down quarterbacks from behind, covering wide receivers, firing up his teammates, and yes, blacking out opposing ball carriers.

"He's really a heck of a kid," said Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen. "He's growing every day as a football player. As good as he is, he hasn't even come near his potential yet."

He's been showing flashes of that potential lately, however. For the season, he's made 24 tackles and recorded three sacks. Against Eastern Michigan, Merriman played a game Friedgen called "one of his best," harassing Eagles quarterback Chinedu Okoro into bad throws, and then chasing him down from behind when Okoro tried to tuck the ball and run.

On one play, Merriman started to rush the passer, only to see the ball sail over his head into the arms of a wide receiver. In a blur, Merriman stopped, planted, then went tearing back upfield to make the tackle. The result for Eastern Michigan: a 1-yard loss.

"He has the potential to be as good as he wants to be," said Terps defensive coordinator Gary Blackney. "He's not a guy who just talks the talk, he also walks the walk."

Make no mistake, Merriman likes to talk the talk. But occasionally that raw energy will get him in trouble, as it did his freshman year against Georgia Tech. Maryland had a big second-half lead when Merriman unloaded on a Yellow Jackets running back, leaving him crumpled on the turf. Standing over him, Merriman pointed to the tattoo on his arm and smiled. Friedgen, to put it lightly, was not happy.

"I try to tell people that if I get my hands on [game tapes from when I was young], I can show you the same type of player," Merriman said. "I was just smaller then."

Even though Merriman weighed all of 170 pounds at one point in high school, Maryland's coaching staff had a pretty good hunch Merriman could achieve greatness. When he showed up at the Terps' football camp as a junior, and proceeded to run past, over and through just about everyone there, the only question that remained was what position he would play.

"It was love at first sight," Friedgen said.

Friedgen was even more in awe when Merriman put on 50 pounds by the time he got to Maryland. Merriman wanted to play middle linebacker, but E.J. Henderson, an All-American, was already there. The Terps needed him on the field right away. Before long, he was splitting time at the Terps "Leo" position, where a player is required to be hybrid of defensive end and linebacker.

"It's so hard to find [someone who can play that position]," Friedgen said. "It's essentially a defensive end, but we do so much zone blitzing that he drops into pass coverage a lot. You've got to find a guy who's strong enough to take on a 300-pound offensive tackle and stop the run, and yet be able to cover a back out of the backfield or sometimes a wide receiver. ... Shawne could play other places, but I think he's going to be a dominant player at that position."

This was supposed to be the year Merriman turned all that potential into results, but he suffered torn cartilage in his left knee during the preseason, which hobbled him a bit during the first two weeks. Merriman still rotates series with senior Jamal Cochran, but the Terps almost always send Merriman in on passing downs.

"Right now, I feel like I can have a great game [one week], and then have just a good game the next," Merriman said. "I don't really have too many bad games where I make a whole lot of mistakes, but if you want to be a great player you have to come out and prove you're great every week."

Even on a bad knee, Merriman still managed to drop a few jaws in Maryland's first game this season, laying a violent hit on Northern Illinois running back Michael Turner. Just reliving the collision makes Merriman smile. Turner was fighting for extra yards and got his feet tangled up, and Merriman came flying in and turned the lights out.

"I love that feeling, just knowing that the player in front of you can't do anything to stop you," he said. "He knows he's going to get it and can't do anything about it. It's just great."

Next for Terps

Matchup: Clemson (3-1, 1-0) vs. Maryland (3-2, 0-1)

Site: Byrd Stadium, College Park

When: Tomorrow, 3:30 p.m.

TV/Radio: Chs. 2, 7/WBAL (1090 AM)

Line: Maryland by 7 1/2

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