- The Washington Times - Friday, October 2, 2009

A meeting more than a year in the making unfolded this week in Maryland’s football team house.

Tackle Tyler Bowen, beset with foot problems the past two seasons, made his way to coach Ralph Friedgen’s office. He had tried walking boots, resting, practicing every other day.

None of it mattered. The lingering pain never subsided for long. And now he had to deliver a message Friedgen agreed with: He couldn’t play anymore.

“He’d probably be our starting right tackle right now if he was healthy,” Friedgen said. “But he isn’t.”

Bowen is one piece of a star-crossed class of offensive linemen collected to offset an anticipated exodus after the 2008 season. But the Terrapins have missed on more than they’ve hit, and the result is a offensive line struggling during on-the-job training.

And it isn’t just the 2007 class. Maryland signed 11 scholarship offensive linemen between 2005 and 2007, and five didn’t begin this season in the program. Just one arrived in 2006, and he is no longer in College Park.

“Right now, we can’t focus on that,” said center Phil Costa, the line’s lone fifth-year senior. “It’s kind of in the background of what we’re doing. … We’ve got who we’ve got in this room, and that’s what we have to work with.”

The list of game-by-game starters from the first month of the season features former walk-ons (Andrew Gonnella and Paul Pinegar), a redshirt freshman (R.J. Dill) and a true freshman (Bennett Fulper). But while they’ve taken some lumps, other names who exited quietly are just as meaningful in assessing why the Terps (1-3) have labored up front.

Evan Eastburn. Zach Marshall. Bearthur Johnson. Joe Faiella. The Terps invested two seasons in all but Marshall. But for a variety of reasons they’re no longer around, and Maryland is in a bind as a result.

“If you lose those guys, it’s a hole you can’t make up rapidly,” offensive line coach Tom Brattan said. “You’re not going to go get a guy off the practice squad or pick somebody who was cut like they do in the NFL. You have to take what you’ve got, nurture them. You can’t play without big guys. … You treat the ones you have like gold.”

A bumpy stretch

Friedgen’s plan all along was to bring along a seven-man class signed in 2007 gradually so he could deploy several redshirt sophomores when the likes of Jaimie Thomas and Edwin Williams departed after last season.

It was a mix of a coveted prep school star (Bruce Campbell), some well-regarded prospects from Southern states (Bowen, Maurice Hampton and Lamar Young) and a few early commits (Faiella, Johnson and Stephen St. John).

Campbell is about what Maryland expected, a left tackle who could anchor its line for a couple of years. The other six have combined to play 13 games and start two - one fewer start than Gonnella, an invited walk-on from the same class.

“That’s recruiting in a nutshell sometimes,” ESPN.com recruiting analyst JC Shurburtt said. “I’m not a person that really likes to go back and say, ‘This is where they screwed up in this class.’ I don’t think you can use hindsight to evaluate recruiting. It would be almost as if you were critical of a fortune teller for not being correct.”

Maryland cannot be blamed for all the problems that surfaced. Bowen’s foot injuries and Young’s shoulder ailments stunted their development, and St. John is also slowed with shoulder problems (some of which cropped up in high school). Faiella was a miss who transferred to Stony Brook, and Johnson arrived overweight, never got in shape and flunked out.

Just like that, Maryland’s plug-and-play plan was derailed.

“Do we need to do a better job evaluating? Maybe,” Friedgen said. “But we found some guys, too, like Jared Gaither and Stephon Heyer. We have [28] guys active in the NFL [as of last week], so you can’t say our recruiting has done that poor.”

Regardless of evaluation acumen, Maryland’s offensive line is nearly devoid of upperclassmen. The three-man class of 2005 was Costa; Gaither, who played two years before entering the NFL supplemental draft and is now with the Baltimore Ravens; and Marshall, who stayed a season before transferring to Miami (Ohio) to be closer to home.

The next year, the Terps signed Campbell for the first time and Eastburn, a Colorado product who transferred home after two years when his brother was diagnosed with cancer. No lineman originally on scholarship who entered school in 2006 took a snap with the Terps.

“I’ve seen that come back and bite schools before, not just Maryland,” Shurburtt said. “When you don’t have the numbers in each and every class and you’re not adding depth on top of depth, it can be difficult, and you can get in a bad situation.”

Shurburtt said a team should have at least 17 to 20 offensive linemen in the program at one time and should sign four or five linemen a year. Maryland has 16 on scholarship this season but given the dearth of strong options, it isn’t easy to build depth in a program far from powerhouse status.

“You like to have 17 offensive linemen in the program,” Friedgen said. “That’s sometimes hard to hit your quotas because it’s ever-changing. Obviously, some guys end up going to defense or offense. It’s a fluctuating thing.”

Seeking solutions

Maintaining depth is difficult enough at positions easier to project or in units where players are more able to contribute in their first or second years.

The offensive line is different considering the physical maturation required for effectiveness. Then there’s the great unknown of how a large 18-year-old accustomed to dominating will fare once the competition improves.

“How are you going to react? That’s the question,” Brattan said. “That’s what’s hard to measure when you go recruiting youngsters. You can look at a transcript, you can look at them run around, you can meet the mom and dad, you can talk to the coach, you can talk to the strength coach, you can try to get as much information as you can, but until they really get here and go through the process, it’s hard to do.”

Maryland’s line recruiting has evened out in recent seasons. The Terps brought in three offensive linemen in 2008, all of whom redshirted last season and played in the first four games this year. Five offensive linemen signed this year, including Fulper, who has started the past three games.

“Of course that’s the intent. We try to do that every single year,” said Dave Sollazzo, Maryland’s recruiting coordinator since 2005. “But we do have good offensive linemen. They’re just young, and they’re inexperienced. The offensive linemen that we recruited are going to be very good offensive linemen. We’re very pleased and happy with those young men, but the point is they are young and they’re getting better every day.”

They are also receiving some hard lessons on Saturdays far sooner than most of their predecessors. It’s a direct result of the trickle of additions in the middle of the decade and recruiting vagaries sabotaging the class Maryland incorrectly gambled would step in to replace five fifth-year seniors.

“There’s always some attrition that you have,” Brattan said. “At that particular position, we took a lot of it, unfortunately. We can cry or we can say these are the cards we are dealt and let’s not have it happen again if we can avoid it. But life goes on. We have to function, and we have to be productive up front.”

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