COLLEGE PARK - Last season was a tough year for Maryland running back Sammy Maldonado. He was suspended in midseason by Terps coach Ralph Friedgen for breaking a team rule, and when he returned to the team, he blew out his knee just when he started to get significant playing time.
Three games into the 2004 season, things couldn't be more different. Maldonado's knee is strong and healthy, he's back in Friedgen's good graces, and so far, he's been Maryland's most effective offensive weapon.
He leads the Terps with 259 yards rushing, and is averaging an impressive 5.8 yards a carry. Last week against West Virginia, Maldonado rushed for 69 yards on just 13 carries and burst through the line of scrimmage in the first quarter for a 40-yard gain. With Maryland's passing game struggling, it a safe bet Maldonado will get plenty of opportunities again tomorrow when the Terps go on the road in their conference opener to face Duke.
"It just feels good to have a big role, to have my teammates look up to me," Maldonado said. "I've been waiting for this for a very long time, and I'm real happy it's finally here."
It's been somewhat of an uphill battle for Maldonado ever since he transferred to Maryland from Ohio State in 2002. Ability wasn't his problem; maturity was. Maldonado had somewhat of a wild reputation growing up in Harrison, N.Y., which also happens to be Friedgen's hometown. The coach had heard plenty of stories by the time the player nicknamed "Sammy the Bull" showed up on campus.
"I knew all about Sammy, and I kind of laid the law down to him when he came," Friedgen said. "Every time he's kind of strayed a little bit, I've brought him in and he's straightened right out. ... I think he is more mature. He really is. He has his moments, but that's just kind of Sammy."
Some of that maturing came when Maldonado tore his anterior cruciate ligament last year against North Carolina, which required some pretty extensive rehabilitation. But impressively, he came back this year just as strong, and has even stepped up his game while Josh Allen recovers from an undisclosed injury.
"I think he's more confident in what he's doing," Friedgen said. "He's been practicing very well. I think Sammy realizes this is his last year, and he's running hard. He always ran hard, but he's playing very well right now."
Maldonado's bruising running style seems to be tailor-made for Maryland's zone blocking schemes. When the Terps' offensive line can clear out defensive linemen, Maldonado is more than happy to smash helmets with defenders in space, knowing at 235 pounds, he's going to win most of those battles.
"I don't mind dealing with linebackers or defensive backs at all," Maldonado said. "Doesn't matter if there's one or if there's three, I feel good. That's just me. I'm going to break tackles."
NOTES: Friedgen said wide receiver Danny Melendez (hamstring) will make the trip, but probably won't see action unless he has to hold on field goals in an emergency situation. ... Running back Keon Lattimore, who dislocated his shoulder during preseason, has been practicing this week and could play against the Blue Devils.
Next for Terps
Matchup: No. 23 Maryland (2-1, 0-0) vs. Duke (0-3, 0-1)
Site: Wallace Wade Stadium, Durham, N.C.
When: Tomorrow, noon
TV/Radio: Comcast SportsNet/WBAL (1090 AM)
Line: Maryland by 16 1/2