It’s safe to assume Bennett Fulper will never forget his first collegiate snap.
The freshman left guard, who entered in the third quarter of Maryland’s opener at California, admitted he was filled with nerves at the prospect of playing in front of more than 60,000 fans. And in a most inauspicious first snap, he tripped over the center - on a play Da’Rel Scott scampered for the Terrapins’ first touchdown of the season.
With the butterflies out of the way, Fulper did something to earn far greater attention a week later, becoming the first interior lineman to start as a true freshman in coach Ralph Friedgen’s nine seasons.
Only tackles Stephon Heyer (2002), Jared Gaither (2005) and Bruce Campbell (2007) had earned starts in their first season in the program this decade.
Yet Fulper pulled it off, a reflection of his own smarts and talent, as well as a tenuous offensive line situation that left Maryland seeking options, even among true freshmen usually promised a chance to compete for a job before getting a ticket to the scout team.
“I figure they probably tell a lot of guys that, get them to come in here and work really hard so they can prepare them for the next year, which is a good thing,” Fulper said. “But yeah, I was sort of surprised. Then again, I think they prepared me enough for when I do get in there.”
Fulper, though, warrants most of the credit for quickly securing a place. A native of tiny Gretna, Va., he started camp at center, where he played three seasons in high school before shifting to right tackle as a senior. But after making just one mental error in 50 snaps in a preseason scrimmage, line coach Tom Brattan pondered moving him to guard.
Fulper’s quick mastery of the playbook made it possible. He arrived on campus June 1 and immediately started to absorb the offense. Within two months, it was evident Friedgen would consider playing him.
It wasn’t much longer before Fulper’s progression and the Terps’ inability to find two consistent guards made it a necessity.
“He’s one of the smartest people I’ve ever seen with the plays,” right guard Andrew Gonnella said. “He came in as a freshman, and he got what took me a year and a half to learn and understand and be confident with in about three weeks. It’s pretty impressive.”
As much as Fulper has impressed - and lent some optimism for the future of the O-line, for which he’ll likely be a long-term cornerstone - there is the matter of the Terps’ shaky situation at the position.
In Saturday’s overtime defeat of James Madison, Maryland started two former walk-ons, a redshirt freshman and a true freshman on the offensive line. Fulper is only the fifth true freshman offensive lineman even to play. So while there are encouraging moments, there are also mistakes most guys get the chance to work through in practice rather than games.
“For a freshman, he’s doing pretty good,” offensive coordinator James Franklin said. “But you really shouldn’t be playing a true freshman on the line in the ACC. We’re pleased with him, obviously. We feel like he’s got a chance to be a really good player in the future. It’s just that we need to be a good player right now. So it’s just getting him ready.”
Some patience will be required, even if the Terps really can’t afford it at this point. But Fulper could be one of the great beneficiaries of Maryland’s limited depth later in his career.
And he could turn out to be a steal from the territory of a pair of conference rivals. Fulper attended Virginia Tech games while growing up, and arguably the most notable player to come out of Gretna is Virginia quarterback Vic Hall.
“Both of those games are definitely X’d on the schedule for me, but part of me of wants to prove them wrong as well as a lot of other schools,” Fulper said. “Now I’m a Terp. This is where I want to be at. Even if I do prove them wrong, I’m still a Terp.”
How much he starts the rest of this year could be a week-to-week thing, although he’s likely to split time with Lamar Young regardless. However, Fulper’s maturity is one of the handful of welcome signs on a unit struggling to establish itself this season.
“It’s unbelievable. I’ve never seen a true freshman without a size of a Gaither or maybe a Campbell come in and play like that,” center Phil Costa said. “That really says a lot about him. He’s a very intelligent kid. It’s amazing how fast he picked up the playbook, and he’s physical, too. He can play the game, and he’s going to be a big-time player here.”