- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 20, 2008

It didn’t take long last month for Maryland tight end Lansford Watson to realize how his job changed when he switched positions.

In his carefree - well, comparatively carefree - high school days as a huge wide receiver, he could shrug off the strain of blocking players who yielded 50 pounds to him. As camp started for the redshirt freshman, the role was reversed.

It was yet another crucial moment in the football education of Watson, whose emergence as a reliable target along with fellow tight end Dan Gronkowski gives the Terrapins (2-1) a useful tandem entering today’s meeting with Eastern Michigan (1-2).

Watson and Gronkowski combined for seven receptions in last week’s defeat of California, the latest sign of both an improving unit and a possible breakthrough for a player learning on the job.

“It’s being more aggressive,” Watson said. “When I was playing receiver in high school and the All-America game, I was blocking corners that were 180 pounds compared to now blocking guys who are 310 pounds. It’s way harder. You’re not going against guys your age. You’re going against grown men.”

At times, it requires some understanding from others.

Coach Ralph Friedgen might be situated to sympathize. Watson’s shift reminds him a bit of his own more than 40 years ago, when coach Bob Ward broke a watch from the Orange Bowl over Friedgen’s helmet when the quarterback-turned-guard messed up in practice.

The change from tight end to wideout isn’t so jarring. But after losing Joey Haynos to graduation and Drew Gloster to academic ineligibility this season, Watson was pushed into playing regardless of whether he is polished.

“Every day he’s learning,” Friedgen said. “He’s still making the transition from high school wide receiver to tight end. I think sometimes blocking is not one of his favorite things. He has very good hands. I think he’s going to develop into a very good tight end before long.”

The Terps, though, need him now. Gronkowski, whose blocking ability always complemented Haynos’ skill in the passing game, was targeted nearly as many times in the Terps’ three games (eight) as all of last season (10).

Watson, meanwhile, was quiet in the season opener, then caught a 29-yard pass during Maryland’s aborted comeback attempt at Middle Tennessee. Last week, the 6-foot-4, 250-pounder collected three more receptions.

“I don’t necessarily pick out tight ends before the play, but they are always there,” Turner said. “There were probably a few other times I could have hit them. … Whenever you have big tight ends like that, it’s a good situation and a good matchup.”

It was a welcome development to offensive coordinator James Franklin - not because the tight ends were used more but because Turner took what was available.

In Franklin’s scheme, tight ends are often the first read but are also required to be multifaceted players. That goes for a conventional tight end like Gronkowski or a guy playing the H-back-like F position like Watson.

“A lot of your college tight ends, especially your H-backs, start at wideout,” Franklin said. “He still has a little bit of that in him. He needs to be a little more physical, a little lower, a little more aggressive. It’s not a want-to thing with him; it’s more of a pad-level thing.”

It’s a process the Terps will endure for now. Watson began as a slot receiver when he joined the program last season but realized his size wouldn’t compensate for the speed differential against shifty defensive backs at the college level and approached Friedgen about a change.

He discovers a bit more about his bargain each day - sometime at great cost when he encounters an oncoming defensive lineman while blocking.

“You’ve got to do it,” Watson said, “But I’d rather throw the ball.”

Nothing - not even a position change - is likely to convince him otherwise.

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