- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 6, 2005

Maryland running back Mario Merrills wasn’t about to blow his first start by freelancing. If he was supposed to get 4 yards up the middle in Saturday’s opener against Navy, that’s what the senior did. Maybe it looked boring, but Merrills accounted for 149 yards and one touchdown in the victory.

Nevertheless, coach Ralph Friedgen has a suggestion for Merrills as the Terrapins prepare for Saturday’s game against Clemson at Byrd Stadium: try to avoid the safety and get more yards while showing some of that “shake” Friedgen likes watching so much in practice.

“I thought Mario was running almost too hard,” Friedgen said. “I had to tell him try to avoid the free safety. Don’t run into him. He tried to run the free safety over.”

Said Merrills: “I was just trying to get positive yardage. Coach always emphasizes getting 4 yards a play to keep the drive going, and that’s what I tried to do.”

If Merrills was being a literalist, that’s what happens after waiting four years for your turn. Merrills was a phenom from Columbia, Md., who gained 1,743 yards with 21 touchdowns as a high school senior. Penn State wanted the All-American, but Merrills chose to stay home.

The first year meant the scout team. The second season brought 40 carries, but Merrills ran just 23 times in 2003 and 33 more in 2004. His three-season total: a mere 96 carries for 367 yards.

Yet Merrills waited his turn behind Bruce Perry and Josh Allen without complaint. When Perry left for the NFL and Allen suffered a major knee injury that kept him from returning, Merrills outlasted several young backs to get his turn.

It will be a brief turn, no matter how well it goes. Come season’s end, the senior is done.

“I think about that sometimes,” Merrills said of his long wait. “When you sit back and watch other guys play ahead of you, you get a certain appreciation for being in there and realize you’re part of something special.”

Yet Merrills encountered further frustration when a sprained ankle sidelined him for a week when fall practice opened. He fell to third on the depth chart before two good scrimmages enabled him to regain the job. But even he couldn’t have envisioned his brilliant showing against the Midshipmen. Merrills carried 12 times over two drives, scored a go-ahead touchdown at 15-14 and later capped the final drive by running for a 2-point conversion.

“I’m surprised a little bit,” he said. “I was expecting to do well, but 149 yards and a touchdown and 2-point conversion?”

Even more surprising were Merrills’ 30 carries. Friedgen seldom runs one back more than 22 times in a game. But Merrills kept reeling off long gains, and the coach decided to stay with him. And Friedgen may do it again Saturday.

“If Mario keeps running like he’s running, he’ll be the running back,” Friedgen said. “I was a little surprised we played him that much. That wasn’t the plan going in. We’ll adapt our plan depending on how the guy’s going.”

Merrills broke nine tackles against Navy, a lofty number against a swarming defense. Terps nose tackle Conrad Bolston said Merrills’ speed makes him elusive.

“Catching up to him is hard,” Bolston said.

After all, Merrills is trying to outrun time. There’s a lot to do in just 10 more games.

Note — Receiver Derrick Fenner (concussion) is questionable against Clemson, and cornerback Isaiah Gardner (leg) is doubtful. … Maryland will collect money to aid Hurricane Katrina victims during its next two home games.

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