Route changes

First-year Terp Tate's season has been one of adjustments - from tougher studies to switching from offense to defense

December 27, 2008|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,jeff.barker@baltsun.com

COLLEGE PARK - It was the opening kickoff of Maryland's opening game.

Before taking his position on the kick-return team, Kenny Tate allowed himself to survey the scene. Byrd Stadium's worn bleachers were filled with nearly 50,000 fans, most wearing Maryland red. "It doesn't get any better than this," Tate recalled thinking to himself.

The ball was kicked high into the warm, late-summer air, and Tate's freshman season had officially begun.

Over the next three months, Maryland fans would come to know Tate as a promising young safety and special teams player. At 6 feet 4, with good hands and speed, he might be big enough and good enough to become a star - perhaps even play in the NFL one day.

What fans didn't see was the adjustment that Tate - and all the first-year Terrapins - had to make to bridge the deep chasm between high school and major-college football.

For the first time in his life, Tate didn't have his mother to wake him on school days or prepare the two jelly sandwiches he eats for good luck before every game.

Because the college season is so much longer than the high school season, the former DeMatha football and basketball star had to will his body to continue as the season wound down.

But the biggest adjustment came in preseason drills. Tate had been recruited as a receiver and was rated by almost every scouting service among the top 25 in the nation at the position. In recruiting him, Maryland assistant coach James Franklin showed Tate a compelling PowerPoint presentation on how the Terps could be expected to spread the ball around to a variety of receivers. The presentation helped persuade Tate to choose Maryland over Illinois, Ohio State, Florida and other schools he had considered.

But Tate and his parents were summoned by head coach Ralph Friedgen in August and asked whether he was willing to switch to defense - to safety - for the benefit of the team.

The semester hadn't even started, and Tate was already being asked to make a decision that could affect his football career for years to come.

During the next three months, The Baltimore Sun followed Tate to chronicle the challenges he and other players face in their first seasons. It found that for all Maryland does to assist its young players - Tate spent roughly a dozen hours a week in a program to help athletes with their academics - the first season is almost inevitably overwhelming.

Everything is magnified compared with high school. The courses are more challenging, the practices are longer and the pressure from fans, peers and coaches to excel at football is heightened.

"The first semester in college is the hardest adjustment for students," said Dahlia Levin, an academic support specialist for the team. "Then you add football, and it just makes it that much tougher."

The daily grind

For as long as he could remember, Tate had relied on his mother as his personal alarm clock. That changed when the freshman moved into his dormitory suite with fellow Terps Davin Meggett, Cameron Chism, Kerry Boykins, Ben Pooler and Torrey Smith. All were first-year players, although Smith and Pooler had redshirt seasons behind them.

On a typical day, the soft-spoken, diligent Tate set his alarm for 6 a.m. Mandatory team breakfast began at 7.

An hour later, Tate, who is interested in business but hasn't declared a major, was usually in class. His course load included African-American studies, women's studies and mathematics.

But his most important time off the field might have been the hours he spent at the Gossett Team House - the modern brick football facility - in the Intensive Learning Program, or ILP.

The program is designed to get Tate and other athletes up to speed academically. Because of their special skills - in this case, football - many in ILP were admitted to Maryland without the same academic credentials as most other students.

The Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, a watchdog group, has expressed generalized concern about institutions lowering academic requirements for many athletes but not for comparable numbers of other students who might be artists or dancers or possess other skills.

Maryland says its program, known as individual admissions, includes students who aren't athletes. Under it, the university admits applicants who might specialize in such areas as "chemistry, business or acting that complemented their high school experience," said Kathleen Worthington, senior associate athletic director. Worthington said no data are available on how many athletes - compared with nonathletes - have been admitted under the program.

Tate's ILP training was just for athletes. He said he learned critical skills such as taking notes and writing papers. "The goal is to be out [of ILP] in two years and be independent," said Levin, his instructor.

At 2:45 p.m., Tate began football meetings. An hour later, he would be suited up and ready for a practice session that lasted two hours or more.

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