Monday, October 06, 2008

Who is manning the trenches?

After losses like this there are always questions regarding the effectiveness of the coaching staff and various failures on the field or in recruiting battles. It is too early to make a determination regarding offensive coordinator James Franklin, though I think he is already doing a better job than Friedgen did the last two years, but I think the jury has been in regarding defensive coordinator Chris Cosh since last year. I won't belabor that point today.

Some have decided to focus on the failure to land players like Derrick Williams, Arrelious Benn, Steve Slaton and so on. The idea being that getting those offensive threats would translate into more wins. Williams has been largely a flop at Penn State and while Benn is doing well at Illinois he is hardly better than Darrius Heyward-Bey. The larger problem with Maryland's recruiting has been in the less glamorous areas of the offensive and defensive lines. I think evaluating what high school player will be able to develop into a great lineman in college is probably one of the more difficult recruiting evaluations. They probably require the most development of any position in college football because so much depends on acquired technique and a serious weight lifting program but any great program needs a stable of young linemen, especially on offense. Some will develop, some will not, and there are always injuries to account for but getting extra linemen in recruiting is like insurance for when things don't go as you planned.

In the early years of the Ralph Friedgen era there was no shortage of quality offensive line players coming out of Maryland. From 2001-2003 Maryland had seven All-ACC selections on the offensive line with players like Todd Wike, Melvin Fowler, Matt Crawford and Lamar Bryant leading the way. The Terps also had two honorable mention offensive line players during the 2002 and 2003 seasons, C.J. Brooks and Kyle Schmitt. In 2002 Maryland had four of its five offensive line players get either 1st, 2nd or honorable mention All-ACC. The last four seasons combined have produced less selections for Maryland.

From 2004-2007 Maryland has had three All-ACC selections on the offensive line by Andrew Crummey (2006 & 2007; both 2nd team selections) and C.J. Brooks (2004). Crummey's 2007 selection was probably undeserved as Crummey missed five out of Maryland's eight ACC games due to injury. Crummey was a fine player but he wasn't good enough to make the more mediocre players around him better. Crummey and Brooks both were pre-season All-ACC selections and those players usually get the benefit of the doubt from the media voters even if they have unspectacular seasons.

You can recruit all the dazzling skill position players you like, and the staff has certainly done that, but without a solid group in the trenches it will likely go for naught. There is little mystery why teams like USC, Texas, Michigan and Oklahoma have been so successful in college football. Since 2000 those teams have the most offensive linemen selected in the first five rounds of the NFL draft. 

It seems after getting blown out by Florida and Florida State regularly Ralph Friedgen decided to focus on getting great skill position players at wide receiver and running back with decent results. Maryland has a greatly talented receiver corps, one James Franklin said had NFL caliber speed, but the foundation on which Fridge built his early success has crumbled. The program has failed to recruit or develop top level college linemen since the glory days of Friedgen's tenure. 

Since 2005 Maryland has landed only two offensive linemen who were ranked in the top 25 at their position according to Scout.com, Jared Gaither and Bruce Campbell. Campbell may turn out to be a decent tackle and he held his own last season as a true freshman when injuries forced him into the lineup. Gaither flunked out of Maryland after having to go to prep school to qualify in the first place. The only linemen from the 2005 recruiting class still on the roster is guard Phil Costa, who is also the only starter recruited since 2005. In 2006 there were only two offensive linemen recruited, Bruce Campbell and Evan Eastburn. Campbell had to attend prep school so he didn't arrive until 2007 and Eastburn is no longer on the team. The net result is that two back to back recruiting classes ended up being a dry hole for the offensive line. During those same two classes the staff recruited 13 running backs or wide receivers, though some have been converted to other positions. In 2007 the staff tried to rectify that error with seven offensive linemen in addition to Campbell but none of those players besides Campbell has been ready to contribute and most of them are two or three year projects at best. The 2005 and 2006 classes should be providing experienced depth on the offensive line but instead have only accounted for one player in the two deep at any position along the line. Next year when the 5th year seniors are gone from their starting spots there will be some vacancies for the young crop of linemen but the early returns are not promising outside of Campbell. 

It isn't a much different story on the defensive line either. From 2001-2003 Maryland had players like Charles Hill, Durrand Roundtree, Randy Starks, Kevin Eli and C.J. Feldheim. Since that time the only defensive lineman who could match that level of talent was perhaps Dre Moore. Shawne Merriman played the hybrid LEO position and it is worth noting that the players who have inherited that position haven't exactly been a help to the defensive line. The staff has tried to recruit some defensive linemen but has had a series of recruiting SNAFU's from the X-Box scandal with Victor Abiamiri to the prison sentence for Melvin Aleaze. Throw in the recruiting losses (Derrick Harvey, Marvin Austin) and the flops or flunkouts (Brian Whitmore, Barrod Heggs) and it is clear that the staff hasn't done the best job in assembling or grooming the players needed to dominate the line of scrimmage on either side.

Let me be clear: I don't advocate Freidgen be replaced but I think he has done a poor job of assembling or developing a quality offensive line or defensive line. To me that is the main reason this program has struggled with consistency. It is strange that a former offensive lineman would continue to have this problem year after year after the group he inherited from Ron Vanderlinden matriculated.

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