Garcia was ready when Terps needed him

Called into action late in the season, freshman offensive tackle could anchor line for next three years

December 25, 2010|By Jeff Barker, The Baltimore Sun

COLLEGE PARK — — His first appearance in a Maryland game attracted relatively little media scrutiny. Max Garcia is, after all, an offensive tackle.

But the debut of Garcia — whose Terps (8-4, 5-3 Atlantic Coast Conference) play East Carolina (6-6) in the Military Bowl on Wednesday at Washington's RFK Stadium — was not without drama.

Garcia, 6 feet 4, 290 pounds, was one of Maryland's most coveted recruits from this season's freshman class and is a key to the Terps' future.

"We were in a very, very hard-fought [recruiting] battle for Max," coach Ralph Friedgen said earlier this year.

Friedgen will coach his last Maryland game on Wednesday after the university ought out the final year of his contract last week.

Garcia is part of the effort to continue to upgrade Maryland's offensive line, which was improved this season. That development, like so much about the program, is in transition as Friedgen departs and a search committee selects a new coach. But quarterback Danny O'Brien — the Atlantic Coast Conference rookie of the year — has said he will stay at the school, and there is no reason to believe there will be an exodus of linemen. 

Coaches had hoped to preserve Garcia's redshirt status this season by holding him out of games. But, like an actor waiting backstage, Garcia found himself summoned suddenly.

The Terps were playing Florida State last month in a game that would knock Maryland from the ACC divisional race. Garcia was on the sideline when center Bennett Fulper injured his hand and it began to swell.

"It was huge; it was like a ball," Garcia recalled. "So I asked [guard Andrew] Gonnella what happened to Fulper. He's like, 'His hand's messed up. Man, that's crazy.'"

Garcia expected what happened next.

Offensive line coach Tom Brattan had told Garcia to be ready.

"He gave me hypothetical situations that if something were to happen, that I'd be the next man up," Garcia said.

The next thing he knew, Garcia saw Brattan pacing up the sideline and calling his name.

"I was like, 'Coach! Coach! I'm right here,'" Garcia said. "He says, 'Are you ready? It's your time.' I was like, 'Yeah I'm ready.' Everybody in the huddle was like, 'You got this.'"

Among the most supportive was running back D.J. Adams, Garcia's high school teammate from Norcross, Ga.

"D.J. said, 'This is what you came up here to do. It's time,'" Garcia recalled.

Left guard Justin Lewis (knee) also was injured in the game. Right tackle Paul Pinegar had to move to center, Garcia made his debut at R.J. Dill's tackle position and Dill moved from the left side to the right side.

Behind the reconfigured line, the Terps gained 432 yards, including 163 on the ground. Maryland lost, 30-16, but the coaches saw Garcia's promise demonstrated for the first time in a game.

"We asked him to go in and there wasn't a hesitation," said James Franklin, who left his post as Maryland's offensive coordinator to take the head coaching job at Vanderbilt this month. "I thought he handled it very well. I think he's got a very bright future."

Coaches probably would have preferred to hold Garcia out to allow him another year at the back end of his college career.

"I don't know if it's ever worth [trading] 15 plays for a whole year," Franklin said. But he said Garcia gained valuable experience.

"The [Florida State] game just showed me what kind of game speed is out there — what type of competition is out there," Garcia said. "I'll be ready for it next game, and I'll be ready for it next year."

The offensive line struggled with inexperience and injuries in 2009, problems that contributed to Maryland going 2-10. The line was more seasoned in 2010, and it showed. The line gave the quarterbacks more time to throw, and the Terps ranked fourth in the ACC in passing efficiency.

The opening-game starters — Dill and Justin Gilbert at tackle, Pinegar at center and guards Gonnella and Lewis — all played in multiple games. Gilbert, Dill and Lewis were redshirt freshmen a year ago.

Coaches also gave game experience this season to redshirt freshmen Pete White and Pete DeSouza. DeSouza suffered leg fractures in a motor-scooter accident, but plans to return next season.

The blend of youth and experience should continue to help O'Brien and the rest of the offense. Pinegar, a former walk-on who made honorable mention All-ACC, is the line's only senior starter.

A half-dozen offensive lineman have committed to Maryland for next season. Among the top prospects are Andrew Zeller of Red Lion, Pa., and Nate Clarke from Fork Union, Va.

"We'll definitely be solid throughout these couple years," Garcia said.

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