- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 1, 2004

Is Quarterback U. ready to turn another unheralded passer into a precision playmaker?

Sophomore quarterback Joel Statham emerged from fall practice as the Maryland starter even though he had shaky performances in the spring game and two recent scrimmages and has no career touchdown passes.

And yet the Terps aren’t panicking as they head into the season opener Saturday against Northern Illinois at Byrd Stadium.

Statham’s situation seems to be status quo for a program that has sent 14 quarterbacks to the NFL, plus last year’s starter, Scott McBrien, who appears on the verge of making Green Bay’s roster. Maryland never has had a problem putting an inexperienced quarterback under center.

Boomer Esiason planned to play baseball at Hofstra before the Terps gambled a scholarship on him. He went on to play in a Super Bowl. Frank Reich, Neil O’Donnell and Scott Zolak weren’t highly regarded recruits and had little experience before they became Maryland starters. Each of them went on to play in a Super Bowl, too.

Six of Maryland’s 14 NFL passers came from the same system used by Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen. The offense has a 1,200-page playbook, traces back to Ohio State in the 1930s and relies more on mental dexterity than physical prowess. The Terps don’t need the next Manning offspring to run an offense that can send five targets into motion like a wave of arrows. Just give them a quarterback who’s consistent and quick-witted and the system will work.

“It takes a cerebral kid to be successful in this offense,” offensive coordinator Charlie Taaffe said. “He has to be a gym rat who enjoys the X’s and O’s of the game. We give the quarterback an opportunity to run the show at the line of scrimmage with the many checkoffs and audibles rather than just snapping the ball and handing it off.”

The offense was popularized by Don Coryell in the 1970s and has spread throughout the college and pro ranks. Some of the Terps’ offense can be found in the Washington Redskins playbook of Joe Gibbs, who is another “Air Coryell” disciple. Ditto for Oakland Raiders coach Norv Turner.

Stan Gelbaugh said the Terps’ offense he ran in 1984 and 1985 that won an ACC championship was similar to those used by the Buffalo Bills and Seattle Seahawks.

“Maryland’s offense today has some of the same elements from 20 years ago,” said Gelbaugh, now a Maryland season ticket holder. “It’s progressed quite a bit since then, and [Friedgen] expects even more from quarterbacks now.

“The real reason it works is it’s balanced. Coach believes in a balanced attack where everyone’s involved. It’s wide open, but it’s also [one in which] a guy can run for 150 yards. You take what the defense gives you versus ‘we’ll make it work.’”

Maryland relies on multiple receivers, high-percentage passes and a strong running game. If opponents move up a safety to play eight men against the run, the Terps will throw over them. If they play an extra cornerback, Maryland will run. The key is for the quarterback to recognize the defense at the line of scrimmage. The Terps give their passers the freedom to choose … as long as they choose correctly often enough.

“The quarterback has the opportunity to control a lot of the game,” Taaffe said. “With that freedom comes responsibility. A guy can become a good quarterback in this offense if you can understand the concepts. The system has so much flexibility to the individual’s strengths rather than forcing a quarterback into the system.”

Different styles have been the norm over the years. Esiason could rock defenses downfield. Reich was one of the nation’s top percentage passers. Shaun Hill, who is a backup for the Minnesota Vikings, thrived on mobility. McBrien read defenses well.

“What helps is our system is flexible to take advantage of better qualities each quarterback had,” Friedgen said. “They have to be able to throw the football. If they can’t, that limits us. You have to have vision to see things. If it becomes a big blur, then they start guessing when throwing the football, and that’s when you get into trouble.”

Said Taaffe: “I don’t know if you can plug anybody into the system, but we build around his strengths. Neither Shaun nor Scott were four- or five-star recruits, but I think that’s way overrated.”

Gelbaugh said the system makes quarterbacks even more productive than bigger-name rivals. McBrien was 2-0 against N.C. State’s Philip Rivers, who was the NFL’s fourth choice overall last spring. McBrien went undrafted.

“McBrien might not have been Philip Rivers,” Gelbaugh said, “but he operated in Ralph’s offense just as well as Rivers did in N.C. State’s offense.”

Maryland does have a big-name quarterback on the roster. Jordan Steffy, a standout high school quarterback from Pennsylvania, was named No.2 on Friday after only three weeks with the Terps. However, Maryland is hot after another prep prospect for next year’s recruiting class.

“Joel and Jordan have an opportunity, but I’m trying to recruit another quarterback this year,” Friedgen said. “Some of them get scared away, but I told the kid, if I didn’t think you [could] beat them out, why would I recruit you? I want a competitive situation so we have a lineage of quarterbacks.”

Because Quarterback U. doesn’t take semester breaks.

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