By Dan Steinberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 17, 2005
Isaiah Williams began demanding the ball before preseason practice even began, during summertime seven-on-seven drills. Darrius Heyward-Bey has given Maryland's quarterbacks extra incentive to perfect their timing; otherwise "he'll outrun our arms," Joel Statham said. And several veterans approached Coach Ralph Friedgen during the first few sweltering days of fall practice to ask variations on the same simple question: "Where'd you get these kids from?"
Williams and Heyward-Bey -- two-fifths of a quintet of freshman wide receivers -- have come to symbolize one of the oft-mentioned hopes of this sweaty preseason: that the Terrapins will jolt a stagnant offense back to life with a flash of speed and an ability to go deep.
There are many ways to quantify Maryland's abrupt fall from offensive grace last season. Through four games the Terps averaged more than 450 yards per game; over their last seven games they averaged 208 yards. In their final three games the Terps scored one touchdown, and in three straight games before their season finale they failed to average two yards per carry.
And then there was this: Maryland's longest pass play of the season went to a running back. Its second longest went to a tight end. And in those final seven sputtering games, the team's wide receivers caught a total of one pass of at least 25 yards.
Coaches, naturally, attribute that triumph of gravity to several factors. There were breakdowns in the offensive line, there were mental mistakes and turnovers, and there were inexperienced quarterbacks making improper reads, leading to the ascendance of new starter Sam Hollenbach. There was also a steady erosion in the foundation of success that had built up over three winning seasons -- "a couple of tough games offensively and then we lost our confidence and that thing just snowballed," offensive coordinator Charlie Taaffe said.
And finally, for lack of a better term, there was no Calvin Johnson. The Georgia Tech freshman combined a 6-foot-4 frame with impressive speed last season to finish second in the ACC in receiving yards and receiving touchdowns and among the leaders in yards per catch. It was a performance not unlike that of another tall and swift Georgia Tech receiver -- Dez White -- who in 1999 led the conference in yards per catch with Friedgen as his offensive coordinator.
"We haven't had a guy we could throw the ball up the field and just let them go get it," Friedgen said. "I think for us to have a good season, we have to find that guy that can make plays."
Which is why Friedgen instructed first-year receivers coach Bryan Bossard to begin tracking such catches during practice, so that the leaders could be recognized at team meetings. And which is why eyes light up and adjectives flow when the talents of the 6-3 Williams and the 6-3 Heyward-Bey are discussed.
"Just exceptional," Taaffe said of their speed.
"Unbelievable athletes," senior wide receiver Derrick Fenner said.
"They can play the deep ball as well as anybody I've seen," cornerback Josh Wilson said.
Perhaps the most discussed moment from the first week of camp was one such throw to Heyward-Bey, who was joined side-by-side with a defensive back, until he wasn't.
"All of a sudden, he just separated," Taaffe said of Heyward-Bey, who was a dominant sprinter at the McDonogh School near Baltimore. "We haven't seen a lot of that."
The freshmen also have the bravado to complement their athletic ability. To wit:
· Williams, who boasts a 42-inch vertical leap, on the duo's athleticism: "It's just really ridiculous."
· Heyward-Bey on the threat he poses: "Like they say, speed kills."
· Williams on calling for the ball during seven-on-seven drills: "I didn't have any hesitancy to do that at all."
· Williams on the results: "I call for the ball, I catch it -- touchdown every time."
While Friedgen has already said he expects both players to contribute this season, don't expect anything close to Johnson's production. The freshmen have at times appeared lost running Friedgen's complicated offense, lacking the necessary precision on routes, and both acknowledge they are behind the upperclassmen. Each also has been slowed the past few days: Heyward-Bey turned his ankle, and Williams suffered a shoulder sprain Saturday.
Seniors Jo Jo Walker and Fenner are penciled in as the starters. Walker took a seam pass 70 yards for a touchdown in a drill Saturday and Fenner, who led the team in receptions a year ago, has also made several long catches in camp. Another senior, Danny Melendez, has been the most consistent receiver since the spring, and junior Paschal Abiamiri has looked better since moving from wideout to a slot position. Friedgen, in fact, said the wide receivers have been the most improved unit on the team.
And the whole enterprise will still depend on the fortunes of Hollenbach, who has consistently earned plaudits from Friedgen this month. The junior has mixed his snap counts, used different types of cadences and looked off defensive backs, and coaches say that both he and former starter Statham have made the sort of reads that no Maryland quarterback made last year.
"The game," Friedgen said, "is starting to slow down a little bit for them."
Now, Friedgen must wait and see whether his wide receivers can speed the game back up.