Terps coach Zacharias is learning on the run

`I'm still a defensive coach trying to be a running backs coach'

August 26, 2006|By Heather A. Dinich | Heather A. Dinich,[Sun reporter]

College Park -- An inflatable bed is stored under Phil Zacharias' desk in the Gossett Football Team House. There have been a few nights this summer the new running backs coach at Maryland exhausted himself learning the playbook and preparing for practice.

Until now, Zacharias had never coached offense.

"I'm still a defensive coach trying to be a running backs coach," said Zacharias, who most recently coached the defensive line at Temple. "It's not easy. I have defensive instincts after 20-some years. It's been a challenge, but that's what life is about."

His transition has been eased by one of the deepest units on the Terps' roster, as four experienced running backs - three of whom have started - will give Maryland the option to use more two-back sets this fall.

Lance Ball, the Terps' leading rusher from a year ago and the leading returning rusher in the Atlantic Coast Conference, is atop the depth chart. Senior Josh Allen missed all of last season with a torn left anterior cruciate ligament and medial collateral ligament, but impressed coach Ralph Friedgen with one touchdown and a team-leading 65 yards rushing in last Saturday's scrimmage. Allen is likely to push junior Keon Lattimore for the No. 2 spot. And senior J.P. Humber has shown marked improvement and is also likely to receive playing time despite three fractured ribs. He has been practicing and Friedgen expects a quick recovery.

"I'm very pleased with the way our running backs are playing," Friedgen said. "I think [Zacharias] is in a very tough situation. It's not like we're coming in and running isolation right, isolation left. He's coaching on the move. The fact he's with some quality kids who have been there before are helping him wade through it a little bit."

Friedgen interviewed Zacharias a year ago and received a rather in-depth resume from him again after the retirement of defensive coordinator Gary Blackney at the end of last season. Friedgen said he was originally considering Zacharias for a defensive position - not coordinator - but time was running out on hiring a new assistant on offense. The unexpected departure of former offensive coordinator Charlie Taaffe left Friedgen in somewhat of a bind a few weeks before spring practices were scheduled to start.

After interviewing nearly a dozen candidates, Friedgen placed a phone call to Zacharias' home. He heard the young voice of Zacharias' son, Jameson, on their answering machine, and called it "one of the deciding factors." Jameson was 11 years old at the time, and simply said his "dad wasn't here right now; he's probably at work."

"I knew he was a family man," Friedgen said.

Zacharias - who now closes his eyes when the team is watching film and the defense is on - has also coached the Ravens' outside linebackers, the linebackers and special teams at Notre Dame, and the defensive ends and special teams at Stanford. He was an assistant at six other programs and worked with the defense at each one.

As a player at Salem College in West Virginia, though, Zacharias was a linebacker and a running back.

"To me, that would be my area of expertise," Zacharias said, "is explaining how [linebackers] think."

It's a perspective Lattimore can relate to: He worked with one of the top linebackers in the NFL all summer - his half-brother, Ray Lewis.

"He always let me know from a linebacker's perspective; he gave me all the keys," said Lattimore, who lived with Lewis in July. "You know if you see a linebacker lining up this way and he's on his toes, he's comin'. If he's back, he's in the zone. We watch film together all the time. He's one of the best linebackers, and I'm picking his brain."

Apparently, it's paid off. Friedgen said every time he looks up, it seems to be Lattimore who has broken away for the long run. Still, he's also the only one of the four who has fumbled this summer. The most accomplished player from last year is Ball, who rushed for 903 yards and averaged 4.8 yards per carry. Allen has 1,860 career rushing yards and is tied for sixth on the school's all-time list for career rushing touchdowns with 21. Humber played in eight games last year and averaged 13.2 yards on four carries.

Friedgen said he'll use them all. The key will be who can block the best.

"[Lattimore and Ball] will get the ball. ... They're all good receivers," he said. "You've got guys who can run and can catch. The main ingredient is, can they block? That's what we're working harder on."

Not everyone, though, is a veteran of the running game.

"A football coach is a football coach," Zacharias said. "I don't feel like it's nothing I'm not going to be able to master."

Note --Cornerback Josh Wilson, recovering from a foot injury, returned to practice yesterday but wasn't allowed contact.

heather.dinich@baltsun.com

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