While trying to assemble the best team possible to renew the Big 33 Football Classic rivalry with Pennsylvania this summer, the Maryland Big 33 coaches have run into a few more challenges than anticipated.
Enough skill position players turned out, but not enough linemen, when Big 33 officials invited 139 players to a tryout combine at the Ravens' Under Armour Performance Center in Owings Mills on Feb. 9. Gilman coach Biff Poggi, who will coach Maryland in the Big 33, and his assistants hope to remedy that by having more linemen attend the final tryout on March 9 in Crofton.
"The big concern is getting the best offensive linemen in the state to play," said Big 33 assistant coach Henry Russell, who is also a Gilman assistant. "I think a couple of Dunbar kids, Nicholas Bonaparte and Malik Jones, are coming out. Jones is going to Maryland and Randy Edsall wants to see the in-state guys represent the state. We're also expecting to see Moise Larose from Wilde Lake."
Kyle Schmitt, who is now transitioning from coaching Atholton to taking over at Archbishop Spalding, will coach Maryland's offensive linemen — a position he played in the Big 33 game after his senior year at Derry Area High School outside of Pittsburgh.
Schmitt, who went on to play at Maryland, urged all the players who missed the first combine to come out on March 9.
"It's a game that's going to be nationally televised on the NFL Network and ultimately it's the state pride," Schmitt said. "You see so many of these kids that want to pump up Maryland, and this is the kind of opportunity to show that and to prove that against what we know is an excellent opponent. A lot of the other [all-star] games, it's an east-west or national deal where all the teams are evenly matched. This is two states competing against each other. It's a border war."
Russell said there are a number of reasons some of the state's best players haven't come out for the Big 33 team, which will meet Pennsylvania's best on June 15 at Hersheypark Stadium.
"The toughest thing is it's been so long since Maryland has played in this game that the kids don't understand the significance of it — compared to the coaches around the state," Russell said.
The rivalry is being renewed this summer after a 21-year break. Maryland played Pennsylvania in the Big 33 game from 1985 to 1992, but in 1993, Pennsylvania officials switched to playing Ohio.
In recent years, however, the quality of Maryland high school football has improved to the point where around 75 players in the Class of 2013 are headed to Division I programs.
Pennsylvania came calling again and last fall, Maryland Football Coaches Association officials signed a five-year agreement with the Big 33 Scholarship Foundation Inc.
"The kids don't realize that every single Super Bowl has had a player from the Big 33 be a part of it," Russell said. "In the past, there wasn't the Under Armour game, there wasn't the Army game and so the Big 33 was the game."
In addition, some of the state's best are unable play because they have to report to college in June. Others may be reluctant to give up their last week or two of freedom before reporting.
"Previously when Maryland was in the game, kids were not leaving home so fast to get to college," Russell said. "Now, every college has these kids in summer school and there are summer lifting programs. Years ago, the incoming class would report in mid-July, whereas now everybody's having these kids report in June. Some of the best players in the state are already in college."
Russell said the team should be finalized by mid-March.