After two straight 5-6 seasons, Terps coach Ralph Friedgen says the time has come to return the program to elite status.

UM goal: Seize moment

August 08, 2006|By HEATHER A. DINICH | HEATHER A. DINICH,SUN REPORTER

COLLEGE PARK -- When Ralph Friedgen took over Maryland's struggling football program in November 2000, the Terps were coming off back-to-back 5-6 seasons, and the goal was to win six games - a total that Maryland had achieved just once in the decade before his arrival.

This year, a sixth win would again be an improvement.

"We've been struggling the last two years just to get six wins," senior cornerback Josh Wilson said. "You look on paper, you win six times, it doesn't seem that hard. But the past two years, it's been like trying to get to heaven - you're always falling just short."

After consecutive 5-6 seasons that left the Terps just short of bowl appearances, Maryland players and coaches began preseason practice yesterday in agreement that it's a critical year to restore the program's success.

The losing records have been a stark contrast to three straight 10-win seasons under Friedgen, who attributed the drop-off specifically to turnovers, intangibles and inexperience. The talent on this year's roster, he said, is better than what he inherited his first season.

"If you can look back at the five years we've been here and the improvements that have been made in the program, [they are] probably unprecedented," Friedgen said at yesterday's media day. "We're at a stage right now where we need to get back to a bowl game and continue the momentum and really take this program between the higher levels. There are a lot of things we still want to do here."

One of the criticisms Friedgen has faced the past two seasons is that he won games with former coach Ron Vanderlinden's players - not his own recruits. Last year was the first in which Maryland's roster was filled entirely with players recruited by Friedgen's staff.

"They're entitled to their opinion," Friedgen recently said of outsiders who have correlated his recruiting classes with recent losing seasons. "I know the reasons why we haven't won is mainly because we beat ourselves. Our talent level is better than what we had then [in 2001]. What we had with the players I got there was a tremendous desire to win. I'm hoping we have that same resolve right now with our players. If we do that, I'm very confident we will win."

He acknowledged that a bowl appearance, though, would lure better talent to College Park.

"A lot of recruits are looking to see how we do. They all have short memories, as well as you. But that's human nature. I understand that."

Friedgen pointed to turnovers as another explanation for the program's fall from the top of the Atlantic Coast Conference to mediocrity. In the past two seasons, the Terps turned the ball over 50 times, while opponents did so 36 times.

Maryland quarterback Sam Hollenbach threw 15 interceptions last season.

"It definitely is [a critical year]," Hollenbach said at the ACC Football Kickoff last month. "I think we all know that, but at the same time, I think it's absolutely essential for us to be calm about it, to not be in any way like we have to step outside the box of our abilities. We're not going to be successful that way."

There were three losses on last year's schedule that Friedgen and his players continue to lament - Clemson (Maryland led 24-14 heading into the fourth quarter), West Virginia (the Terps trailed 7-6 before allowing 24 points in the fourth quarter) and Florida State (Maryland led 21-14 at the half).

To avoid similar letdowns, Friedgen said he has been preparing the team since spring for "the moment."

"If you can win that moment, then a lot of confidence will come with that," Friedgen said yesterday. "I think that happened to our first year's team. The first game we fell behind and they were able to come back and finally win that game. ... I really think that's the thing with this team. If we could just get through that, then you would really see this team blossom."

Fullback Tim Cesa said this year that the Terps will be prepared for the close games.

"I feel like this year when that moment happens, when we're in a tight game and we need to get over the hump and we need people to look to, we're going to have guys with the experience to take us that extra step," Cesa said.

Senior nose tackle Conrad Bolston experienced the Gator Bowl as a freshman, and still has his "golden ticket" from the bowl-hosted team dinner to prove it.

"You can't really tell anybody what it's like," Bolston said. "It's like trying to show somebody a room they've never seen. ... They [underclassmen] hear bowl and they know what it means, but they've never been there."

Notes -- Friedgen said offensive linemen Jared Gaither and Jaimie Thomas, who were suspended until Aug. 21 for violating undisclosed team rules, were not in any legal trouble. ... Linebacker David Holloway tweaked his left hamstring, and offensive tackle Scott Burley has a high right ankle sprain. ... Offensive lineman Brandon Nixon is practicing with the team but is academically ineligible. ... Nose tackle Rob Armstrong has asked the NCAA to grant him a waiver so that he can be eligible. Friedgen said Armstrong missed qualifying academically by "a couple of points."

heather.dinich@baltsun.com

Maryland football

Opener: Sept. 2 vs. William & Mary, 6 p.m.

ACC opener: Oct. 7 at Georgia Tech, time TBA

2005 record: 5-6 (3-5 ACC)

2005 ACC finish: Tied for fourth in Atlantic Division

Predicted 2006 division finish: Fourth

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