Friedgen struggles to get Maryland up and running

Injuries slow progress of backfield, offensive line

August 23, 2005|By Heather A. Dinich | Heather A. Dinich,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - After Saturday's closed scrimmage at Byrd Stadium, Maryland football coach Ralph Friedgen said he has never worked harder at establishing a running game in his 36 years of coaching.

And with his top tailback still out two weeks before the Sept. 3 season opener against Navy, it hasn't gotten any easier.

After a 5-6 season in which Maryland averaged 2.9 yards a carry and ranked ninth in the Atlantic Coast Conference in rushing offense, the Terps were determined to improve their running game during preseason camp. But numerous injuries have weakened the offensive line and sidelined the top two fullbacks, hindering any major progress.

"We need to run the football here to win," running backs coach John Donovan said. "When we've done that in the past, that's when we've had good seasons. We have a pretty decent group, but none of them have really played any significant time. We need to step up as a unit and get this thing going."

That has been difficult to do without the unit intact.

Senior Mario Merrills, who was listed as the first-string tailback on the preseason depth chart, hasn't participated in drills for more than a week because of a sprained left ankle. Senior Ricardo Dickerson, the Terps' top fullback, has been out with a left knee sprain. Dickerson's backup, Tim Cesa, was found to have mononucleosis. And three injured starters have been missing from the offensive line. So many injuries have prompted Friedgen to move senior Derek Miller, who had been a tight end his entire playing career, to tackle.

As of yesterday, both fullbacks and Merrills (Wilde Lake) were running at practice, but Friedgen said he is still unsure when they will be ready for full-contact drills.

Friedgen said there hasn't been enough coordination among the backs, tight end and offensive line.

"We're making progress, but one of the things that hurts us is we don't have a guy at fullback who's been there day in and day out," he said. "They keep getting hurt. To get Dickerson and Cesa back would be huge for our running game."

Since Friedgen took over the program in 2001, there has been a definite correlation between Maryland's winning seasons and a successful running game. In the 2001 season, when the Terps played in the Orange Bowl, the team averaged 220.7 rushing yards and scored 33 touchdowns on the ground. Last fall, Maryland's worst production on the ground and only losing season since Friedgen's debut, the team finished with an average of 119.5 rushing yards and scored 12 touchdowns.

After watching film of Saturday's scrimmage, Friedgen said the team showed flashes of improvement.

"Sometimes we broke down on the line, sometimes it was a young kid playing out of position, but we got more push than we did at times last year," Friedgen said. "I wasn't discouraged there. I think some of that will all come together."

Friedgen and offensive coordinator Charlie Taaffe agreed that Lance Ball, who was listed third at tailback behind Keon Lattimore, was most impressive in the scrimmage.

"Everybody has to be perfect," Ball said. "The head man makes the decisions. He'll know [from] practices who's No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3."

So far, Lattimore (Mount St. Joseph) has been taking the most reps with the first string. Taaffe said that, while Lattimore has the potential to emerge as the No. 1 tailback, it's more likely the Terps will use all three.

"Unless somebody just absolutely distances themselves in this preseason camp, we'll probably play all three guys, try to keep fresh legs out there," Taaffe said. "All three can contribute. ... It's very hard to get through a season with one tailback. I see two or all three of those guys getting significant playing time."

Lattimore said he's much further ahead in the playbook than he was at this point last year.

"I know my blitz pickups, I'm reading my cutbacks better, I'm definitely ahead of the game right now, but we have to bring it together," he said. "I have to get on the same page with the offensive line."

The offensive line at Saturday's scrimmage consisted of Miller at left tackle, Jaimie Thomas at left guard, Andrew Crummey at right guard, Brandon Nixon at right tackle and Ryan McDonald at center.

Friedgen has praised their pass protection this summer, but said the run blocking needs work. There were successful short-yardage gains Saturday, but none of the tailbacks surpassed J.P. Humber's 31 yards and one touchdown on 12 carries.

"It just takes awhile to get everybody on the same page," McDonald said. "We were able to take a step in the right direction with that."

NOTES: Friedgen said freshman Jeremy Navarre (Joppatowne) had an impressive scrimmage and earned the starting job at defensive end.

"We had him at fullback in the spring, and he looked very awkward," Friedgen said. "We put him at defensive end, and it looks like he played there all his life."

Jack Griffin, who was at the top of the preseason depth chart at defensive end, was moved to third-string tackle.

"We're trying to get our best players on the field," Friedgen said. "Jack's probably a better tackle than he is an end, although he's done an adequate job at end. But Jeremy is a lot more athletic. If Jeremy could come through, that would be huge for us."

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