- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 2, 2006

Nearly four weeks after reporting for camp, Maryland football players insist they are prepared for a season they believe will vault them back into the postseason.

Coach Ralph Friedgen simply hopes the Terrapins are prepared for their season opener.

The Terps begin their 12-game schedule tonight at Byrd Stadium against William & Mary, a traditionally solid Division I-AA program coming off a losing season. It is far less hyped than last year’s opener against Navy, fitting in nicely with this weekend’s schedule of uneven matchups throughout the sport.

That seems to mean little to the Terps, who have not played since trudging away from a 20-14 loss at N.C. State in November. The setback clinched a second straight 5-6 record and erased any hope of a bowl bid, results that have provided ample motivation in the last nine months.

“I’m so anxious to have a good season, because I’m bowl-less,” junior free safety Christian Varner said. “I’ve never been to a bowl. I’ve been here two years in a row and I haven’t experienced a winning season. I’m ready.”

If Varner and his teammates are indeed set, it would pacify some of Friedgen’s concerns. He has issued the usual admonitions about an upset possibility to prevent the Terps from overlooking the Tribe, and has emphasized that a team that came within one victory of a bowl game the last two years must value every opportunity to win.

Friedgen also has fretted about the Terps’ excitement level, particularly after a lousy practice Monday. Weariness from camp could be a factor, though it is a worry that will remain at least until tonight’s kickoff.

“They’re not jacked like I think they should be,” Friedgen said after Thursday’s practice. “Maybe it’s me. Maybe I’m more jacked than I should be.”

Friedgen followed that discourse with a leap from his golf cart, growling at a startled reporter before cackling with amusement at his own display of readiness. It was one of several playful moments in the last month for Friedgen, who seems far more at ease this year than in other seasons.

The phenomenon is partially attributable to Friedgen handling the offensive coordinator duties for the first time as a head coach. More importantly, he assumed a more hands-on approach in teaching his system to the quarterbacks when ex-offensive coordinator Charlie Taaffe resigned in February.

It also helps that three potential impact players — left tackle Stephon Heyer, tailback Josh Allen and linebacker Erin Henderson — are back after missing last season with torn ACLs. Yet as much as anything, Friedgen is excited about his team’s experience and its eagerness to atone for the last two seasons.

Senior quarterback Sam Hollenbach embodies those characteristics. The team’s first quarterback to start consecutive openers since Scott McBrien (2002-03), Hollenbach enjoyed a fine first half last year before suffering a separated collarbone in the season’s seventh game.

He wasn’t the same after the injury, throwing six interceptions in his final three starts, but he produced a strong camp and seems poised for a productive season.

“I feel I have to prove I can come back from the mistakes that I made,” Hollenbach said. “I can make the plays that need to be made. It’s just a matter of cutting out the mistakes that happened last year.”

Hollenbach will be counted upon to help the Terps’ young group of receivers mature. Sophomores Danny Oquendo and Isaiah Williams are projected to start and redshirt freshman Darrius Heyward-Bey is expected to play plenty. The unit might be especially green tonight since Drew Weatherly wore a walking boot on his right foot during practice this week.

Friedgen declined to describe the severity of the injury, but Weatherly’s absence would deplete an already thin unit. The senior owns 19 of the 23 career receptions among the receivers, who remain the team’s largest uncertainty entering the season.

“Their best play is in the future. I think they’re going to continue to get better, just as they have now since spring,” Friedgen said. “What is interesting to see is how they do in games and how they react in game situations. I think they’ve been better in scrimmages than they were in the spring game, but [a game] takes on a whole new light.”

As it does for everyone. It has been a long offseason for a program not far removed from three straight 10-win seasons, and tonight finally presents a chance to start moving past two vexing years.

“Everybody’s ready to start winning,” senior defensive tackle Conrad Bolston said. “We’re tired of going 5-6.”

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