How will Terps' QB drama end? Tune in this fall to find out

April 08, 2007

College Park — College Park-- --When it comes to television shows, there's nothing I hate more than when producers end a season with a cliffhanger. Sure, we can appreciate suspense and thrive off the unknown, but only because we're assured that resolution is within sight.

When it comes to Maryland football, we already know that we'll be stuck with a cliffhanger this spring, the big question mark hooking us like a vaudeville cane and yanking us through summer and into fall. Oddly, this is the ideal situation for Ralph Friedgen and his Terps.

Jordan or Josh? I know it sounds like a failed Reebok campaign, but the answer to this question will go a long way toward understanding what kind of Terps team will take the field in September.

Will the starting quarterback be 6-foot-1 junior Jordan Steffy, a guy who's paid his dues, sat patiently behind Sam Hollenbach and knows the offense as well as anyone?

Or will it be sophomore Josh Portis, a 6-3 transfer from Florida, who has more physical tools but still plenty of room for growth?

Friedgen said last week that when spring practice ends in three weeks, he expects the starting job to still be up for grabs.

"We may know somebody's ahead, but that doesn't mean that's not going to change once fall starts," he said.

You get the feeling that Friedgen already has a feeling how this all will play out. And he knows better than anyone else how important it is that he actually allows it to play out. By characterizing the quarterback race the way he has, Friedgen has sent each candidate a message.

To Steffy: "You're the guy for now."

To Portis: "You have five months to prove you're ready."

Thus far, Portis hasn't. He's certainly looked great at times. Portis hooked up with Darrius Heyward-Bey on a 45-yard touchdown Thursday that would have inspired the most cynical Terps fan to start analyzing potential bowl matchups. But at that same practice, Portis fumbled at least four snaps and looked a bit apprehensive facing a pressure defense.

Steffy is clearly the more stable of the two. He looks more reliable, though not as dynamic.

At yesterday's scrimmage, Steffy put up the better numbers. He was four of seven for 33 yards and ran in a 4-yard touchdown. Portis was two of seven for 16 yards and threw one interception.

"Jordan's playing as good as he's ever played here," Friedgen said.

Steffy says he's trying not to view the quarterback race as a competition. He seems to have embraced an important truth - that carrot dangling on the end of the stick is pushing both players to excel, which can only help the Terps.

"It's a huge change - my whole perspective on this whole thing," Steffy said. "Before it was, `Man, you got to get through practice.' Don't get me wrong, no one really looks forward to coming out and practicing all that much. But I'm looking forward to coming out, being with the guys and competing."

More than a third of the way through spring practice, you already know what you'll get with Steffy. You can't put much stock in his limited experience (seven games, 12 of 37 for 132 yards), but he's much closer to steady than he is spectacular.

With continued growth, though, the Terps could be a more exciting team with Portis in the pocket - and Friedgen might have the flexibility to finally run an offense that's less predictable than a TV Land rerun. Even the coach is already making note of Portis' progress.

"Overall," Friedgen said, "I think he's way ahead of where I thought he'd be at this point. ... It's a long way to go in that race. I would say that Portis was way ahead of where Jordan was at this stage, you know, just learning the offense."

As a transfer, Portis was ineligible to play for the Terps last year. He says he spent a lot of that time with the Terps' Pro Simulator, the $240,000 computer program Friedgen purchased last year. It's part Madden, part simulator, and Portis says the time he spent with the video-game controller helped him learn Maryland's plays, work on timing and progressions and read opposing defenses.

"When you step out here, it's like second nature, like you've gone through it a thousand times," he said. "It really helped me. Learning the offense as [well] as I possibly can. A couple people on the team didn't pick up this offense very well, but I just studied it, so when the time comes, I'll be ready."

Though Steffy tops the depth chart right now, you've got to think that Portis' time will come - sooner rather than later. Probably not by the start of fall practice and maybe not by the Terps' season opener, but soon.

By dragging out the drama, Friedgen has engaged two eager players, challenging both and ideally giving the Terps a pair of reliable signal-callers for next year.

No, a cliffhanger isn't especially fun, but it's lit a small fire under this football team. One quarterback knows he has to perform to finally get his time in the pocket, and the other knows he has a limited time to convince his teammates - and his coach - that he's ready.

It's a spring story line that won't end with an answer, just those three dreaded words: To be continued ...

rick.maese@baltsun.com

Rick Maese -- Points After

Your final answer, please: Twelve great seasons in the NFL's trenches buys you certain luxuries. At the same time, though, Jonathan Ogden has allowed this will-he-or-won't-he drama to drag a bit. The Ravens should be allowed to prepare for the draft knowing what Ogden will do, and waiting until the week of the draft isn't fair of him.

Say what? Friday marked the 20th anniversary of Al Campanis' choking on his own foot. What amazes me is that two decades later, we're still so flippant with our words. This is especially true when it concerns sports, where machismo trumps good sense. Campanis learned the power of words in 1987. Billy Packer and Don Imus hopefully learned it last week.

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