- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 6, 2006

Among the nearly 50,000 fans who streamed into Byrd Stadium on Saturday against William & Mary, nearly all of them knew they would spend the evening pulling for quarterback Sam Hollenbach as he led Maryland into its first game of the season.

The certainty was a bit unusual for a program that has broken in new quarterbacks the last two seasons. Yet despite leading the Terrapins to a 5-6 season last fall, Hollenbach has been embraced as one of the faces of this year’s team by supporters who admire his charisma, personality and perseverance.

Consider it just another step in Hollenbach’s whirlwind progression from a fourth-string afterthought to entrenched starter in less than two years. And perhaps that makes it worth pondering just how close Hollenbach came to walking away from it after nearly three years of both working and waiting for his chance.

He certainly wouldn’t be preparing for Saturday night’s meeting with Middle Tennessee. Maryland might not have a second-year starter for the first time in three seasons, and the team could have spent fall practice wondering who would play quarterback rather than fine-tuning the offense.

And it would have cost the down-to-earth senior the chance to grow into the role of starting at a program in a major conference and enjoying the benefits that come with it.

“I’ve had a lot of fun with it,” Hollenbach said. “I’ve had the opportunity to do some things that I probably wouldn’t have had otherwise. As far as my own attitude, I’m really trying to act in a way that shows that I respect Maryland football, that I’m really somebody that can be viewed upon as a leader in the program.”

The long wait

The prospect of Hollenbach as a team leader was a bit bewildering two years ago, and it had everything to do with him sitting fourth on the Terps’ depth chart. The situation wore on Hollenbach, a religious man who prayed for guidance for such an important decision.

His father, Jeff Hollenbach, recalled exploring the option of transferring. The elder Hollenbach found in his experience as a high school coach (including Sam’s) that players transferring to different schools wasn’t always the best idea. But he still floated it to his son, who seemingly had little chance of playing at Maryland.

“Finally, I told him I thought we probably need to make a decision and he said, ‘Dad, if I ever left Maryland and then looked back and had a sense I would have played, I’ll regret that for the rest of my life,’” said Jeff Hollenbach, himself a former college quarterback at Illinois. “I thought, ‘OK, I hear you, man. You need to stay.’”

It didn’t mean the possibility of a transfer was gone. His grandfather wrote coach Ralph Friedgen a letter asking him to consider using Hollenbach on special teams, leading to time as a holder on kicks. Hollenbach dedicated himself to his limited quarterback duties in practice, figuring he should be ready in the off-chance he actually played.

It happened in the season’s penultimate game at Virginia Tech. Starter Joel Statham was ineffective, and backup Jordan Steffy was injured. Hollenbach, by then the No.3 quarterback, was solid in a blowout loss.

“I went in there, and there were more reps in that game than I’d had all season in practice,” Hollenbach said. “It was fun to be out there, and the coaches were like, ‘OK, you were paying attention in meetings.’”

He led the Terps to a victory in the season finale against Wake Forest but still entertained the possibility of transferring. Friedgen, impressed with Hollenbach the person as much as Hollenbach the quarterback, implored him to stay.

With no promises from Friedgen, Hollenbach made the fateful decision to remain with the Terps a month later.

“The thing that was perplexing to Sam was that he enjoyed school here. He was very happy here,” Friedgen said. “It was if [football] was the only thing that makes me unhappy, look at all these other things that do [make me happy]. I think those other things are important to Sam.”

Handling celebrity

His decision to stay in College Park and his ability to win the starting gig last year meant the end to his anonymity. No longer could he bounce among mechanical engineering classes, meetings and practice without receiving attention from reporters, fellow students and strangers.

Some of the benefits are obvious, such as the crowd at Byrd chanting his name after he led the Terps to an upset of Virginia last year.

Hollenbach also appreciates some of his experiences away from the game, where he can draw on his own college career to help others. It happened some this summer, when he started to speak at some Christian camps.

“I had a chance to do four or five events where I was speaking in front of groups of between 50 and 500 people,” Hollenbach said. “Just being able to share some things that I believe and my faith, that was really big. If I keep getting opportunities like that, I’ll be really happy.”

It’s a subject Hollenbach speaks of with just as much passion as he has for football. Jeff Hollenbach said his son started a team Bible study group last winter, and between 20 and 40 players attend meetings.

“I know that’s what gave him an identity beyond what football can give him, the down times and the up times,” said his mother, Libby Hollenbach. “He knows he has an identity that’s secure, and he’s valuable as a person.”

But being a starting quarterback isn’t an entirely positive experience. No position is dissected with greater detail, and even the smallest mistake can be subject to a put-in-the-backup harangue on an anonymous message board.

Hollenbach, a Philadelphia Eagles fan, remembers the grief Donovan McNabb absorbed last year and realizes it’s the same for any quarterback. Still, that acceptance didn’t prevent a little shock when fans he had never met came up to him and broke down his performances.

“Your first opinion is, ‘Wow, you don’t know anything of what I do or what it’s like to play at this level.’ That’s your first opinion, but you really have to keep those opinions inside,” Hollenbach said. “You just have to say, ‘Well, all right,’ or just walk away and not say anything. I’ve tried to do that to the best of my ability.”

Fridge factor

When necessary, Hollenbach makes a well-timed case to Friedgen, something that might not have been the situation a year ago. Whenever the coach grumbled about a costly interception after a game, Hollenbach dutifully said he needed to improve.

When a seething Friedgen said he would open the quarterback competition after the season-ending loss to N.C. State, Hollenbach didn’t use his ailing left shoulder as an excuse for committing three turnovers.

But the offseason brought an important change. Friedgen became the Terps’ offensive coordinator, a much analyzed decision because of how it cut into his already busy schedule. A greater impact might have been the extra time Hollenbach spent with Friedgen.

“I think he’s little more comfortable with me,” Friedgen said. “He doesn’t seem so uptight around me. He’ll come back at me every now and again, which if he believes it, that’s OK, too. I’m never opposed to people speaking their minds.”

The familiarity was on display in the Terps’ spring game. Friedgen was irked when one of Hollenbach’s passes was picked off. Hollenbach countered by pointing out that a cornerback knew what play was coming and sat on the route.

The relationship also provided Hollenbach a better sense of how Friedgen views the game. Rather than concentrating on concrete rules about plays, Friedgen thrives on abstract nuances, such as combining knowledge of what a lineman’s assignment is with how different defensive formations impact the lineman’s effectiveness.

Hollenbach knows the offense, and both he and Friedgen agree a second-year starter’s experience and understanding of schemes is vital, especially since the program hasn’t had one since Scott McBrien in 2003.

About the only thing bothering Hollenbach mentally is trying to keep track of who he has met during his time as the Terps’ starter.

“I had noticed my memory of other things is not that great,” Hollenbach said. “Whether it’s names, whatever it is, I struggle with that stuff. I tell people sometimes I just know football and engineering. That’s all that’s in there.”

Second year, second chance

This is a big year for Hollenbach. He’s on track to graduate in May, and he’s off to a solid start in his final season. He was an efficient 9-for-15 for 153 yards in Saturday’s opening 27-14 victory over William & Mary.

Hollenbach devoted his offseason to cutting down the turnovers and ill-timed sacks that conspired to slow him down in the second half. He also worked diligently with the Terps’ young wide receivers during the offseason, helping them prepare for greater roles.

“He’s kind of a staple in the huddle,” left guard Donnie Woods said. “It’s good to have a quarterback back after two years. It’s a leadership thing. I feel like he’s more confident. Guys feed off that in the huddle.”

That’s what the sight of No.14 does now. It instills calm in teammates. It leads Friedgen to proclaim that an extra year of savvy coupled with the decision-making displayed in the opener could vault Hollenbach into the ACC’s elite.

And it makes the grounded Hollenbach savor his situation even more.

“Just to be sitting where I’m at right now, I’m thankful,” Hollenbach said. “Just working hard through that season and not knowing what was going to happen really paid off in the end. Now I’m just looking to have a fun senior year.”

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