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Fixing line a priority
It was another long practice last week, a session replete with red jerseys prematurely converging on Maryland quarterback Chris Turner.
That's life with a precocious offensive line, a unit the Terrapins hope they can restore in time for the fall. Gone is a cadre of fifth-year seniors, in their places guys who took scout-team reps and watched on Saturdays last year.
It's a scenario requiring patience for everyone involved, and it comes easier for some than others.
“No one wants to take their knocks,” tackle R.J. Dill said. “It's a competition. You don't want to look bad any day. You realize you're not going to take a perfect rep every time, but you want to try to get there.”
That's the priority for Dill, one of about a dozen offensive linemen with minimal or no experience scrambling to etch out a place for themselves before the season arrives.
Only one starter - center Phil Costa - seems like a sure thing. Left tackle Bruce Campbell is concentrating on academics this spring and is practicing only sporadically. While offensive line coach Tom Brattan is optimistic Campbell will return in the fall, it still leaves a large hole for the Terps to fill.
That job has fallen to Dill, a 6-foot-7, 320-pound redshirt freshman who could play either tackle position. Right tackle is also in flux, with junior Paul Pinegar - whose game experience exceeds everyone except Campbell and Costa - and Tyler Bowen the likely early candidates.
There's even more uncertainty at guard, where sophomores Andrew Gonnella, Maurice Hampton and Lamar Young and redshirt freshman Justin Lewis are competing for two open spots. Not one possesses game snaps beyond garbage time.
Plugging those variables into an offensive formula usually leads to inconsistency. This case is no different.
“They're struggling right now. That's not unusual,” coach Ralph Friedgen said. “[Defensive coordinator Don] Brown is throwing the kitchen sink at them. I don't know how else to get better than to expose them and keep exposing them to it and being patient, and hopefully they get better at it.”
It's dramatically different from a year ago, when the Terps figured their line would serve as an anchor for a unit with a new coordinator, a tweaked scheme and untested tailbacks. It didn't quite work out that way, and Maryland was just as apt to unleash a torrid running game as it was an unsightly clunker.
Yet even if last season's line underachieved, its regulars played ahead of the guys who remain and still helped the Terps collect an 8-5 season and a Humanitarian Bowl victory. And as soon as the bowl game was over, the leftover linemen understood they would be needed soon.
There were extra meetings this winter, the better to grow more familiar with the scheme. But that could do only so much for guys who have barely played.
Lewis was close to playing last year, but Maryland preserved his redshirt. Bowen, who was boot-bound for more than a year, is finally back on the field. Other linemen dealt with ailments - including Dill, who had left wrist surgery before the bowl game.
Those issues only have added to the importance of the Terps' nine practices in the last month.
About the Author
Patrick Stevens has covered Maryland and other Mid-Atlantic college sports for more than a decade. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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