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After notable start, problems arise for Maryland football

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On Labor Day night, the Maryland football team became the talk of the nation. In their first game under Coach Randy Edsall, the Terrapins took the field for their nationally televised game against Miami in attention-grabbing new uniforms and unveiled an up-tempo offense that had the Hurricanes on their heels for most of a 32-24 Maryland victory.

But one-third of the way into Edsall’s first season — with some discontent among at least a few players simmering behind the scenes and on-field inconsistencies apparent to the naked eye — the glitzy creativity serves only to mask growing concerns in College Park.

Hired by Athletic Director Kevin Anderson to elevate the Terrapins from “good to great,” Edsall, who spent the previous 12 seasons at Connecticut, is encountering early turbulence as the team begins a potentially season-defining stretch of three consecutive games against nationally ranked opponents, starting Saturday at No. 13 Georgia Tech (5-0, 2-0 ACC).

Before the season’s midpoint, Edsall has upset a vocal segment of the fan base by taking apparent jabs at former coach Ralph Friedgen, who was fired after 10 seasons at his alma mater. He has frustrated at least a few players who privately told two newspapers that they take issue with what they feel are team rules that stifle individuality. And he has seen the two faces of the team — safety-turned linebacker Kenny Tate and quarterback Danny O’Brien – struggle to repeat last year’s efforts as the offense and defense continue to search for identities.

When asked if the Maryland job has been more difficult than he anticipated, Edsall said: “That is a good question. I am having fun at what I am doing.”

A team that returned several key players from last year’s 9-4 finish has experienced a rocky transition to a new system. With a 38-7 home loss on Sept. 24 to Temple, which was not as close as the score indicated, the Terrapins (2-2, 1-0) suffered their most humiliating defeat in recent years. Before pulling away for a 28-3 win last Saturday, Maryland was outplayed for a half by Towson, a Football Championship Subdivision team playing a backup quarterback. And the Terrapins’ only other victory came on Labor Day night against a Miami team playing without eight suspended players.

“It has been up and down,” O’Brien said of the season. “It has been a roller coaster. In one month, we have experienced a lot of highs and a lot of lows already. That’s going to be good for us. We have already experienced a lot of adversity as a team.”

Some of the backlash may have been self-inflicted. Edsall surprised many after the Temple game when he suggested that he was in the midst of a rebuilding job by saying: “This is a process we are in. It was not going to get changed overnight no matter how much I want it to.”

Three days later, given the chance to clarify his comments, Edsall stated unequivocally that he did not view Maryland as a rebuilding project. But he further rankled some fans by adding, “When you come in with the type of program you are going to run, it takes time, most especially if young people are not used to being held accountable or they are not used to doing things correctly all the time.”

Many fans were taken aback by the comments because they viewed it as an attack on Friedgen, toward whom many maintain favorable feelings because Friedgen had a mostly successful tenure that included winning the ACC title in 2001, his first season.

The program’s off-field shortcomings under Friedgen are well documented, most notably the team’s sub-par Academic Progress Rate (resulting in the loss of three scholarships for the 2011 season) and the violation of practice-time rules (leading to the team reducing weekly practice time from 20 hours to 17.5). But when Edsall was hired, Maryland was not considered a troubled program that was in need of wholesale changes and a strict rules crackdown.

When Edsall arrived at Maryland in January, he quickly tried to establish a culture that would be defined by accountability and a team concept. He banned earrings and hats in the team building and allowed only neatly trimmed facial hair. Players ran early-morning wind sprints during the spring for minor transgressions. He introduced new Under Armour-designed uniforms that did not have players’ names on the back.

Since Edsall’s hiring, 12 players with eligibility have left the program for a variety of reasons. And since the start of the regular season, Edsall has suspended three players — wide receivers Ronnie Tyler and Quintin McCree (two games apiece), and running back D.J. Adams (one game) — for violations of team rules.

“He is a great leader,” O’Brien said. “Going through the ups and downs, he has been the even-keel guy preaching the same message.”

Other players also have publicly praised what they view as Edsall’s no-nonsense philosophy, but those feelings are not universal. One veteran Maryland player, who spoke to a Post reporter privately about his feelings about Edsall, expressed some displeasure with Edsall’s strict approach, saying that the coach has stifled individuality and created a militaristic atmosphere around the team house. The player, who spoke anonymously so he could talk freely, said he would keep his spirits up because he had just three more months before he planned to leave the program.

In recent weeks, Edsall has said some players were playing more for themselves than for the team. He said Tuesday that the team has shown progress in that regard but that getting everyone to embrace the team concept remains a work in progress.

Most of Maryland’s players were recruited by Friedgen and his staff. When asked directly to reflect on his U-Conn. experience and whether it was easier to get his message across once he had more players whom he had recruited, Edsall said, “When you are instilling your philosophy about the team concept and accountability, and all the things that we do, and new schemes on offense and defense, sometimes maybe it takes a little bit longer for everybody to grasp than what you would like.”

The hype over Edsall’s weekly tweets about which uniform Maryland will wear has dissipated. The no-huddle, up-tempo offense has at times sputtered and may operate at a slower pace Saturdayin an attempt to keep Georgia Tech’s high-powered offense off the field. Whether intentionally or not, the focus is more on substance than style as the Terrapins enter a critical three-game stretch.

“As the year goes on, we’re trying to figure out who we are,” O’Brien said. “I don’t think we have answered it.”

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