- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 29, 2001

The Maryland secondary knows it will be in the cross hairs of Steve Spurrier's combustible aerial assault in Wednesday night's Orange Bowl. The key is to ground the Gators' vaunted attack to have a chance at victory.
For Maryland's defensive backfield, seasons preceding this one were tough; the unit was much maligned for, among other shortcomings, the Charmin-soft cushions it gave receivers. But a veteran group helped change the secondary's image this season.
The Terrapins' defense often gave up bunches of yards through the air but usually had the final word, recording 24 interceptions the program's most since 1955 and second in Division I-A behind Miami. Now the group will get its sternest test yet in the Gators, college football's top-ranked passing offense.
"We're going to be tested," said Maryland defensive coordinator Gary Blackney. "There's no question in my mind this is the best quarterback, the best group of wide receivers that we've seen."
How will the Terps' secondary prepare for the Gators and star quarterback Rex Grossman, who finished second in balloting for the Heisman Trophy after passing for 3,896 yards and 34 touchdowns to key the nation;s top offense?
First, players said, they will relax there is no reason to be uptight. They're looking forward to the game as a great challenge and feel comfortable with Blackney at the controls. Blackney said they have had good physical preparation in facing receivers from Florida State, Clemson and North Carolina, though the Terps will have to prepare themselves mentally as well as physically.
"As a cornerback, you have to have a short memory. If a bad play happens, a bad game, you have to get rid of it," said Dennard Wilson, who in his first start of the season was picked on by Florida State. "As a cornerback, experience like [Florida State] helps you grow as a person, will help you grow as a football player. I went through a tough time, I had a bad game basically my only bad game of the year and I learned from it."
Wilson, a sophomore who had to start against Florida State in senior Tony Okanlawon's absence, appears likely to start again. As late as Dec. 11, coach Ralph Friedgen had been optimistic that Okanlawon who had begun practicing with the team again after being sidelined with an undisclosed illness would be able to play, but the coach since has said he "isn't counting on him."
The way Blackney has prepared the secondary, perhaps no challenge is unconquerable. Blackney serves as the defensive backs coach in addition to being defensive coordinator, so he tutors the secondary in context of the formations and schemes he calls in a game. He blitzes often and has his cornerbacks play aggressively, meaning they're typically in better position to make plays on the ball. It's a style the Terps enjoy playing and at which they have excelled.
"He lets us know what we can expect in coverage, when to change the technique up. He didn't let us sit back in coverage," said cornerback Curome Cox. "It helped that coach Blackney was aggressive with the blitzes."
Said Blackney: "I think the players really enjoyed the system because it is an attacking and aggressive kind of system. … What they lacked a little of in the past was just confidence."
In addition to conducting the usual interception drills making breaks on passes, tipped-ball drills Blackney also utilized Jugs machines (like baseball pitching machines) to fling footballs at increasingly faster speeds, which improved players' hands and reaction times. Combined with the fact Maryland lost only safety Shawn Forte from the regular 2000 rotation, and the secondary was ready to flourish.
"There's an old adage what you see is what you coach," Blackney said. "I think it's important that players have good ball skills. I think sometimes some of the little things are overlooked. I think when you're sound fundamentally, and you pay attention to the little things, you really take care of the big things."
By all accounts, the Terps' worst defensive game the secondary, in particular came in the 52-31 loss to Florida State, when Seminoles quarterback Chris Rix threw for 350 yards and five touchdowns and seemed able to pass at will. Defensive backs want to put that game behind them, but it's undeniable and maybe a bit unsettling that what the Terps faced in that game provides a good indication of what the Gators will throw at them.

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