Seeking to start with a swagger

Friedgen: Rebuilding depends largely on gaining confidence early

September 03, 2010|By Jeff Barker, The Baltimore Sun

COLLEGE PARK — — As Maryland's training camp opened, coach Ralph Friedgen paced in the carpeted Gossett Football Team House auditorium in front of a white screen with black lettering.

On the screen were Maryland's six goals for the season, which begins Monday against Navy at M&T Bank Stadium. The goals began with "Beat the next opponent," "Win a minimum of 7 games" and "Win the Atlantic Division," and proceeded right on through to "Win the ACC championship," "Win the bowl game" and "Finish in the Top 25."

"Don't let people talk down to you," Friedgen told his team, which was 2-10 last season. "We know what we've got; we know where we're going. Have confidence in yourself, and believe in yourself."

The scene was recounted by multiple players and captured on video by the school's "Terrapins Rising" reality show.

With his encouraging, lift-yourself-up rhetoric, Friedgen might well have been a motivational speaker or life coach. Which in a sense he is. His task: Instill confidence — "swagger" was how Friedgen had put it during spring workouts — in a team that lost its final seven games of 2009, almost costing the coach his job.

As the season begins, Friedgen, 63, defines his principal task as more mental than physical. It's getting young players —– Maryland has just 16 seniors — to buy into the program, and especially into themselves.

Elevating players' self-assurance is the first component of a rehabilitation project for football at Maryland that depends heavily on what happens in the first several weeks of the season, Friedgen says. Winning a few early games, coaches believe, would not only alter players' senses of who they are, but also help attract fans back to Byrd Stadium.

Season-ticket sales have slipped from 28,661 in 2005 to 22,804 last season. This year, season tickets are off by an additional 17percent, to about 18,900. "Our Family 4-Paks are really, really down," interim athletic director Randy Eaton said of the packages that feature four season tickets for $500. "They're off by more than 50 percent."

Nearly one-third of the suites in the stadium's Tyser Tower are not yet leased.

Eaton said the economy is partly to blame. But no one disputes that winning could attract fans back to Byrd and spark students' enthusiasm, which in turn could help rally the team.

"A lot of students flat-out say we [stink]," said strong safety Antwine Perez, a senior. "The people that are saying it don't really understand what you go through. I kind of take it and brush it off."

Remaining confident in such conditions is no easy task.

"People picked us last in the ACC this year. That's fine. I would, too, if I was on the outside," said offensive tackle R.J. Dill, a redshirt sophomore. "They don't see what I see in practice this year."

Added Perez: "We kind of have been building some swagger [in practice]. All great teams have swagger — Florida, Alabama. They play with it."

Playing Navy in the first game presents Maryland a huge opportunity. Knocking off a top-notch in-state rival on ESPN — Navy was 10-4 last season — would allow the Terps to immediately savor a victory and avoid questions about their losing streak.

"Hopefully, we'll go up and play well, and the students will get excited about this football team," Friedgen said.

But playing Navy, with its dangerous triple-option offense, also poses a risk. Last season, the Terps lost their opener, 52-13, to a potent California team on national television and never seemed to find their footing.

"I'd probably rather have a little more time to prepare for [Navy]," Friedgen said. "But it's a game to look forward to."

Maryland's hopes this season — "Be There for the Comeback" is the team's marketing slogan — rest largely on an offensive line that struggled with inexperience and injuries last season. Maryland's offense — highlighted by speedy receiver-returner Torrey Smith, quarterback Jamarr Robinson and injury-riddled running back Da'Rel Scott — often seemed rushed in 2009, lacking ample time or room to maneuver.

The season began badly when Bruce Campbell — now with the NFL's Oakland Raiders — suffered turf toe in the opener. Guard Bennett Fulper also missed significant time during the year, and the line seemed perpetually in flux.

"I think more than anything it's just continuity," said Dill, whose father played football for Navy. "It was tough for me last year — and I feel like for anybody — when they were changing the guard next to me every week. The O-line is about five people playing together."

At the least, the line will be more experienced this season. All the projected starters — Dill and Justin Gilbert at tackle, Paul Pinegar at center and guards Andrew Gonnella and Justin Lewis — played in multiple games. Gilbert, Dill and Lewis were all redshirt freshmen a year ago.

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