- The Washington Times - Friday, August 17, 2001

Jason Crawford walked off Maryland's practice field with a bandage around a broken finger on his left hand and a football firmly in his grasp after a brief goal-line scrimmage this week.

The true freshman is one of five tailbacks hoping to be awarded the starting job when the Terrapins open the season Sept. 1 against North Carolina. But the road to replace LaMont Jordan, the program's all-time leading rusher, has been filled with potholes.

Each of the candidates brings different skills to the job. Crawford, at 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds, has size, strength and breakaway speed. But like each of the five, he is facing a major roadblock.

"He's fumbling the ball too much," said Terps coach Ralph Friedgen, whose team will conduct its first lengthy scrimmage tomorrow. "I think he runs hard. I think he brings a lot to the table. But if you fumble, I don't care if you're O.J. Simpson, you're not going to play."

The tailback spot is open because Bruce Perry and Marc Riley, the front-runners at the start of camp, haven't stepped forward. Perry, a 5-9, 190-pound sophomore, has missed time with a sore hamstring after shoulder problems limited him in spring practices. Riley (6-3, 225) is a bruising runner with a workmanlike mentality, but he has not shown breakaway ability.

"Marc Riley is very steady," running backs coach Mike Locksley said of the durable senior. "He just has to make the big plays. You can't just go four yards and get tackled. You have to make guys miss and run through tackles."

Chris Downs, a 5-8, 189-pound junior, also has been praised for his blue-collar attitude but hasn't distinguished himself otherwise. True freshman Mario Merrills (5-10, 180) has been a pleasant surprise, showing big-play ability, but inexperience hurts his chances.

A tailback competition was expected when Jordan completed his eligibility last year and was drafted by the New York Jets, but it wasn't expected to be this wide open. Perry was penciled in as the featured runner-in-waiting while redshirting last year after a promising freshman season.

"I'm just trying to stay healthy and compete," said Perry, who rushed for 195 yards as a true freshman in 1999. "That's my main focus right now."

Riley is the only tailback who played for the Terps last season, when he had six carries for 17 yards playing behind Jordan and senior backup Mukala Sikyala. Riley, a regular on special teams, is trying to add elusiveness to his power game.

"I excel in short-yardage situations," he said. "I'm working on my visions, making the proper cuts and blocking just everyday things for a back. I feel I'm the best one here, but I have to prove it."

Crawford's body matured when he spent a year at Fork Union Military Academy last year after leaving Parkdale High School. That gives him a physical edge over Merrills, who played for Howard County's Wilde Lake High School last season.

But both true freshmen have struggled learning Friedgen's pro-style offense, which confuses even veteran players who spent the spring and summer learning the playbook.

"We're getting in there and thinking too much, and we're afraid to mess up," Crawford said. "And that's when we mess up. I think I do better in the short-yardage stuff, because there is nowhere else to go just get across that line. Determination is the key. I have a lot of it."

Maryland's coaches hope to have a clear-cut starter by the time the Tar Heels come to town, but they realize that may not happen. They are prepared to make situational substitutions, such as using Riley or Crawford for short-yardage plays.

After four years of having a sure thing in Jordan, it appears Maryland might have to go with a running back-by-committee situation in the first season of Friedgen's tenure.

"There are five tailbacks now," Riley said. "It's just a big question mark. Who is going to fill the shoes of LaMont Jordan?"

Note Receiver Steve Suter, one of the candidates fighting for a starting job, tore the meniscus in his right knee and underwent surgery yesterday. It is not known how long he will be out.

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