- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 15, 2002

Mario Merrills figured he would find a way onto the field this season. Maryland's redshirt freshman expected to play on special teams as a kick returner and possibly help ACC Offensive Player of the Year Bruce Perry with rushing chores at tailback.
But with Perry's health questionable because of abdominal problems, Merrills has been stating his case to start and is working as the top tailback in practice. Perry, who missed practice again yesterday morning, has worked out sparingly since undergoing surgery in April and has participated only in light workouts since fall practice began.
"I knew that this could be the situation coming in," said Merrills, who played at Wilde Lake High School in Columbia, Md. "I thought Bruce might still be practicing through two-a-days, but I knew I was in a fight to be No.2."
Merrills has gained size and knowledge of the intricate offense since arriving in College Park last fall as an undersized freshman with an oversized playbook. He has gained some 15 pounds and now carries 204 pounds on his 5-foot-10 frame.
Considered a blue-collar player who makes the correct reads, Merrills currently is atop the depth chart ahead of senior Chris Downs and sophomore Jason Crawford as the 21st-ranked Terrapins wait for Perry to recover.
Merrills, who once ran for 313 yards in a high school game, has taken advantage of the opportunity with a balance of speed and power and instincts. Merrills doesn't see competitors as his greatest challenge lately, but rather battling Code Red heat as temperatures soar toward triple digits.
"The biggest thing is the mental part of the game, just understanding the offense and knowing all my responsibilities and working through the heat part," Merrills said. "The biggest challenge is fighting through the heat. When you're in the meeting room, you know what you're supposed to do. When you get on the field, you get a little fatigued, it gets hard to remember things."
Merrills, the Terps' offensive scout team player of the year last season, has been reserved about his upgraded role and is aware it could be temporary. But the level-headed tailback is using the experience to build on after coming in last fall as a redshirt and gaining more time and responsibility in spring practice, over the summer and now in preseason drills.
"My vision has gotten better, just everything," Merrills said. "I understand the principle of what we're trying to accomplish on offense. I'm feeling more and more comfortable every day with the offense and with being the No.1 tailback right now."
'Same old E.J.'
Other than wearing a black jersey while the rest of the defense is in red, linebacker E.J. Henderson has looked like the All-American he was last season. After missing spring practice following back surgery, the ACC Player of the Year has participated in every practice and shown his superior athleticism since two-a-days started Saturday.
"Right now, he's the same old E.J.," said coach Ralph Friedgen, who has Henderson wearing a black jersey to make sure he doesn't get hit.
Henderson was not expected to take part in last night's goal line scrimmage the team's first workout in full gear but is expected to ease into contact soon.
Beating the heat
Friedgen has altered the practice schedule the last three days because of the heat. All three scheduled afternoon practices have been pushed to evenings. Nonetheless, players are experiencing an array of heat-related problems, especially cramps. Offensive guard Todd Wike, offensive tackle Matt Crawford and defensive tackle Randy Starks are among the extensive group that has missed practices.
"We're getting kids sick," Friedgen said. "It's a form of dehydration."
The coach is giving his players more water breaks during practices and is trying to give more time off for rest between the two-a-day sessions. Things could improve as temperatures are forecast around 90 degrees the next several days, and the Terps have only one scheduled practice today at 3:30 p.m.
"We have to be careful with the heat right now," Friedgen said. "If kids keep going down, it defeats the purpose. If they can't practice, they can't learn."

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