Thursday, November 15, 2001

Quarterback Shaun Hill and center Melvin Fowler fell through the cracks. When the Maryland seniors finally land, they might find themselves in the Orange Bowl on Jan. 2, playing in the Terrapins’ first postseason game since 1990 and their first major bowl in 25 years.
Once virtually ignored, Hill and Fowler are two visible reasons the Terps are 9-1 and can claim the ACC championship if they beat N.C. State on Saturday.
In high school and, in Hill’s case, junior college, too, they were unsung, unappreciated and pretty much unrecruited. And they aren’t alone. Almost every program has players who avoided detection on the recruiting radar screen but who eventually showed up with an unmistakable presence.
“I just felt in my heart I could play anywhere in the country,” said Fowler, a fifth-year player who has started every game of his career after switching from the defensive line as a redshirt freshman.
“Sometimes,” Hill said, “you have to travel the path less taken.”
Hill’s journey began in his hometown of Parsons, Kan., population 11,500, and continued to Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College. It was there he was discovered by Mike Gundy, an assistant under then-Maryland coach Ron Vanderlinden. Gundy, now an assistant at Oklahoma State, was checking out a defensive back when Hutchinson coach David Wheeler recommended he take a look at Hill.
“That’s how it started,” Gundy said. “Kind of by accident.”
There have been similar “accidents.” Gundy was a quarterback at Oklahoma State, and a good one, but his main job was handing off to a tailback who also was ignored in high school. Ever hear of Barry Sanders?
Although college recruiting has become highly sophisticated, “It’s not an exact science,” said the Terps’ first-year coach, Ralph Friedgen, who inherited Hill and Fowler but whose staff has maximized their abilities. “Just like pro football is not an exact science. They draft these guys, they think they’re going to be all-world, and then they go bust.
“It’s easy to tell the height, the weight, the speed. What you’d like to know is what’s inside of them. If you could send them to [the Heart Institute at] Loma Linda and find out what kind of heart they have…. How important football is, how motivated they are to go to school and work. Those are the guys who end up making it.”
Even though he was an outstanding basketball player and a sprinter on the track team in high school, the 6-3, 221-pound Hill was stereotyped as too big to run the option. And, he didn’t get to throw much.
“I was underdeveloped as a passer,” he said.
With only 525 students, grades nine through 12, Parsons High played a small-school schedule and received little attention.
“We were tucked away in the southeastern part of the state, and not a lot of schools recruit in that area,” he said.
Recruited by Division II and Division III programs that wanted him to change positions, Hill knew he had the ability to play quarterback at a higher level, but not the experience. At Hutchinson, he learned technique and mechanics and “all the things associated with throwing the football.”
And yet, even though one publication ranked Hill the nation’s No. 5 JUCO quarterback, few schools came calling. South Carolina nibbled at Hill, but had Gundy not stumbled upon him, Hill was ready to attend Southwest Missouri State.
“All I needed was one offer,” he said. “That was my goal, to leave with one Division I scholarship. If it was one or 50, it didn’t matter.
“I’m not angry at anybody,” said Hill. “I guess their mistakes paid off better for me. … I don’t feel like I have anything to prove to people who didn’t give me a chance. I have things I need to prove to myself, standards I need to live up to.”
Gundy watched Hill at practice and was impressed. He said he “started investigating” Hill, and liked what he learned.
“Everyone said he was a winner, that he’d end up winning games for you,” Gundy said. “As a college coach, sometimes it’s hard to measure that. We want to see a guy come in and tear it up. He has intangibles. He has heart and he has guts.
“I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I think if I see a quarterback and have a feel for him like I had a feel for Shaun, I’m usually right. I’ve been around quarterbacks all my life and just had a good feeling.”
Hill’s signing prompted Gundy’s brother, Cale a former Oklahoma quarterback who has been an assistant at his alma mater for the last three years to call Mike to tell him that he had never heard of Hill.
Last year, Hill’s first at Maryland, was spotty. He won the starting job during the 2000 preseason, but suffered a sprained shoulder in the opener against Temple and missed the next five games. He came back and started the final two games, helping the Terps beat N.C. State. However, his numbers were ordinary.
This year, Hill’s statistics aren’t special. He ranks seventh in the ACC in passing efficiency. Admittedly, he struggled with Friedgen’s complicated system during the early part of the season, but his intelligence and grasp of the game has enabled him to adjust. He is nimble enough to run the occasional option, his accuracy is improving, and he’s a leader Hill is a member of the Terrapin Council, a liaison between the players and coaches.
Mainly, the record will show that with Hill calling the signals, the Terps have scored more points this season than any team in school history.
“The more I got to know Shaun, the more I got to know what a character individual he was,” Friedgen said. “I realized there really was something to this kid. I would have loved to have had him a couple more years.”
Fowler, unlike Hill, has used the slights of the past as a motivational tool.
“I work extremely hard in the offseason, I never miss a workout, and I think a lot of that has to do with not being heavily recruited, with not really getting a shot,” said Fowler, who will start his 44th straight game at center on Saturday.
“I worked hard in the past. … but I feel like I had something to prove when I got here. Which is why I worked so hard from the moment I set foot on this campus.”
Friedgen had a similar player when he was offensive coordinator last season at Georgia Tech. David Schmidgall was recruited only by Division II and Division III programs, but wanted to attend Tech because of its fine engineering program. So he walked on. Schmidgall earned both the starting center position and a scholarship last year, and now, while enrolled in graduate school, is competing with Fowler for All-ACC honors.
Fowler is from Wheatly Heights, N.Y., a small town on Long Island, and played at Half Hollow Hills West. It doesn’t even sound like a high school football factory. Despite starting all four years and being voted by coaches as the best lineman on Long Island as a senior, the only Division I programs to offer scholarships were Miami of Ohio and Rutgers. The perceived lack of high school competition (a favorite excuse among recruiters) might have been a factor. Except, Fowler said, several players from his conference were recruited by ACC schools..
He didn’t have a clue why he was being ignored.
“I knew I was better than the offers I was receiving,” he said. “I worked hard, I was a good player. I don’t know if my coach didn’t put my name out there or if Long Island football wasn’t living up to other areas of the country, but for whatever reason I wasn’t heavily recruited.”
Like Hill, Fowler was a happy accident for the Terps. Another Vanderlinden assistant, Steve Greatwood, traveled to Long Island to look at a player at another school, defensive tackle Derrick Jones. While Greatwood was there, Jones’ coach suggested he take a look at Fowler.
“I thought, ‘Wow, ACC football. That’s amazing,’” said Fowler, who broke an oral commitment to Miami of Ohio when Maryland came through with a scholarship.
Jones has since left Maryland because of academic reasons. Fowler, meanwhile, was switched from nose tackle to center where he hadn’t played since junior high 10 days before the 1998 opener against James Madison. He has remained there ever since.
“They just saw something in me, I guess,” Fowler said.
Friedgen, a former offensive lineman for the Terps, has made a lot of changes. But center wasn’t one of them.
“Not only is [Fowler] very athletic for a center, he’s very smart, a leader who has all the intangibles you’re looking for,” Friedgen said. “He’s the quarterback of the offensive linemen.”
Friedgen has other hidden gems, like sophomore Andrew Henley, a reserve linebacker who wasn’t recruited because he played one year of football at DeMatha and then dropped it. Henley is out with a broken foot.
Friedgen’s favorite story about an unknown player making it big goes back nearly 30 years.
Roy Lester was the coach at Maryland then, Friedgen a graduate assistant. One day an eight-millimeter film cannister arrived in the mail. It featured a player from Queens, N.Y., a linebacker named Dave Visaggio whose high school did not field a football team. Visaggio played Pop Warner Football for high school aged players.
The film was shot by Visaggio’s coach at the time.
Somehow, Friedgen said, the film fell behind a radiator in an office that now belongs to athletic director Debbie Yow. Someone eventually found it and the coaches slapped it on the projector. This kid, Visaggio, was killing everybody.
“Everybody started laughing,” Friedgen said.
They decided to bring Visaggio down to campus and see if he was as big in person as he looked on tape. After he measured in at 6-1, 235-pounds (decent size back then), the coaches figured, what the heck, and offered him a scholarship.
“The kid nearly broke into tears,” Friedgen said.
Visaggio ended up starting for three years, playing on a defensive line that featured Randy White, perhaps the greatest Maryland player ever. During his senior year, Visaggio injured his knee against Clemson. He motioned for the officials to call timeout, but they ignored him. He stayed in the game and made a tackle on the very next play.
“I have never coached a more intense player in my life,” Friedgen said.
According to Terps defensive line coach Dave Solazzo, a friend of Visaggio’s, White once received an award and was asked about being tough. White said the toughest player he ever played with or against was his former teammate, Visaggio.
“Sometimes,” Mike Gundy said, “you just hit on a kid.”

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