- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 25, 2008

Jamari McCollough played all of three games on kickoff coverage and kickoff return in his first three seasons in Maryland’s program.

It wasn’t an extensive resume. It wasn’t even a great resume. But as spring practice and summer workouts came and went, the self-assured junior believed he should be starting for the Terrapins.

Maryland’s staff thought otherwise, shifting incoming freshman Kenny Tate from wideout to strong safety in August and leaving McCollough to battle for a third-team spot.

Fed up with sporadic practice snaps and a reasonably bleak forecast for future playing time, McCollough arranged a meeting in the final week of camp with coach Ralph Friedgen, defensive coordinator Chris Cosh and secondary coach Kevin Lempa.

McCollough had one basic request.

“It was basically, ‘Give me an opportunity to show you what I can do,’” McCollough recalled this week.

So they did, a decision that becomes more valuable each week for the Terrapins (5-2, 2-1 ACC), who host N.C. State (2-5, 0-3) on Saturday.

McCollough left the discussion with a mandate to show he could be a more physical option for the Terps. Within a month, he played part time at free safety when Terrell Skinner missed two games with a high ankle sprain.

This week, he shifts over to cornerback and likely will play in Maryland’s nickel package, a necessity after senior Kevin Barnes (fractured shoulder blade) was lost for the season. Defensive backs don’t often move from safety to corner, which only validates McCollough’s significance in the program.

“I think he’s one of the more improved players,” Friedgen said. “I’m pretty pleased and also pretty proud of the way he’s come back. When I moved Tate over there, he came in and he was upset. I just told him I wasn’t really convinced you could play after spring practice, and he’s taken his game to a whole other level. He’s kind of showed me, and that’s good.”

It just took him a while.

McCollough entered school in 2005, a cocksure cornerback who needed just one practice torching from former Terps receiver Jo Jo Walker to realize how different college was from high school.

When McCollough came back to camp a year later, he was moved to safety and seemed like a possibility for the Terps’ dime package. But he tore his ACL during camp and missed the entire season, and then waited until the final three games last season before earning time on special teams.

That set up his in-camp frustrations and the dose of reality Friedgen delivered in response to his questions. McCollough, though, quickly set to work to show the Terps’ coaches how useful he could be this season.

He knew he would be challenged soon enough, especially given the staff’s belief that he might struggle against the run, so he improved his tackling and was prepared for an exam of physicality in practice.

“They put me down there in a three-on-three, and I guess that was just a test,” McCollough said. “I guess I passed. I was willing to do anything to show them I could play on this level.”

He was just getting started. McCollough started working at free safety just a few weeks before Skinner’s injury and split time with Antwine Perez when Skinner was hobbled in September. He intercepted three passes in a two-game span, displaying the awareness in coverage of an observant former cornerback who studied the responsibilities of everyone in the secondary during his career.

At least he was a former cornerback, until the Terps starting working him there during a bye week earlier this month. He’ll be needed there in a reserve capacity against the Wolfpack with Barnes out, and his understanding of the Terps’ scheme only amplifies his versatility.

McCollough’s intellect makes him an ideal candidate to make the switch to corner, as does his own certainty in his abilities.

“You just have to have that’s swagger that ‘I’m the man,’” McCollough said. “‘This is my island, from this sideline to this hash, it’s all me.’ That’s how you have to handle that.”

Now McCollough is back where he started. It’s also a place far from where he was two months ago, when a steady role seemed unlikely.

The one constant is his conviction that he’s more than capable to handle any job - a conclusion Maryland’s coaching staff now readily acknowledges.

“At the time, I saw him where he was,” Lempa said. “He has since proven he’s much better than I thought he was, but he’s as good as he thought he was, which is a good thing. Anytime someone thinks they’re as good as they think they are, I’m happy for them.”

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