By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 10, 2009
Ralph Friedgen will stand behind a microphone Monday and answer a hodgepodge of season-specific questions about two-deep depth charts and two-a-day practices. But the larger issue remains the same as it has been the past six summers: Can the ninth-year Maryland coach again lift the program to the heights it reached during his first three years, when the Terrapins won at least 10 games each season and Friedgen became known as one of the game's brightest offensive minds?
Despite an assortment of adjustments in recent years -- assuming offensive coordinator duties and then relinquishing those duties -- the team has achieved middling results. It has taken the past five seasons for Maryland to eclipse the combined win total (31) that Friedgen achieved in his first three seasons. The past five seasons also have yielded an 18-22 record in an Atlantic Coast Conference that has become deeper and more balanced.
Changes abound after a wildly inconsistent 8-5 season in which Friedgen acknowledged his veteran team underperformed, adjustments intended as much for the long-term health of the program as for the long-term well-being of the 62-year-old Friedgen. There's second-year offensive coordinator James Franklin entering his first season as Friedgen's eventual successor. And there's first-year defensive coordinator Don Brown employing what is billed as a more aggressive, creative defense.
The most visible difference, though, will be cosmetic, and apparent as soon as Friedgen enters the interview area in the Gossett Team House. Long known for his rotund figure, Friedgen will look almost svelte in comparison, weighing more than 100 pounds less than when he began an aggressive diet in October.
Friedgen, who weighed 401 pounds nine months ago, talked at length this summer about his need to lose weight to enhance and probably prolong his life now that he's in his 60s. He's talked about tossing aside clothes that now are too big for him, eating small meals every three hours and the possibility of posing in a swimsuit calendar with Philadelphia Eagles Coach Andy Reid, who has lost 75 pounds while adhering to the same diet.
"I said, 'I bet they'll be lined up to buy that one,' " Friedgen said. "I told him, 'I'll wear the Speedo, you wear the thong.' We'll have a lot of fun with it."
A Maryland player recently approached Friedgen and asked if the coach saw an ESPN feature on him, saying, "Coach, they had you down as the 'Biggest Loser.' "
"I said, 'My record?' " Friedgen said. "He said, 'No, your weight!' So I'm proud of that."
One of the reasons Maryland named Franklin as the program's coach-in-waiting last winter was because of rumors circulating in the recruiting world about Friedgen's health. School officials hoped the announcement would send a message to recruits that the program is in good hands and will continue to be whenever Friedgen decides to retire.
The return of Franklin, a high-energy coach and well-regarded offensive mind who worked under Friedgen as wide receivers coach earlier this decade, has allowed Friedgen to act more as the CEO of the program, in large part because Franklin shares the same philosophies.
"From a philosophy standpoint, we're the same," Friedgen said. "You take a general look at my philosophies, I want to have a balance between run and pass. It means we have the ability to do both equally well. I think James has that philosophy also, and I think he got that from me when he was here when I first came here."
Franklin helped Maryland's offense finish third in the ACC at 350.7 yards per game despite an inconsistent offensive line and the occasional inability to get the ball to its best playmaker, wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey, who was selected seventh in the NFL draft by the Oakland Raiders.
Even with lingering offensive line issues, Franklin is optimistic about improving on those numbers in his second year with the offense. One reason: The Terrapins will enter the season with an experienced starting quarterback (Chris Turner) for the first time since 2006. Another reason: Maryland could have nine potential options at wide receiver.
"We are light years ahead of where we were last year," Franklin said during spring practice. "Last year, we were talking about base concepts and philosophies. Now we're building on those things."
The defense will have an entirely different look with the arrival of Brown, the former Massachusetts head coach who was hired after Chris Cosh took a similar defensive position at Kansas State. Brown's blitzing, pressing defense is expected to sharply contrast with Cosh's schemes, which were criticized for being too passive.
A talented group of defensive backs should benefit from Brown's arrival, but it remains to be seen how successful the defense can be with a revamped defensive line that looms as one of Friedgen's biggest concerns entering camp.
"When I look at us, it's all about execution and understanding," Brown said. "I think we're fairly athletic. I don't think we're non-athletic. I think some groups are ahead of other position groups, but I certainly think there is enough there."
Most preseason prognostications disagree. The Terrapins, who lost 30 seniors from last season, were picked no higher than fifth in the Atlantic Division in preseason magazines and were voted by ACC reporters to finish fifth in the division, ahead of only rebuilding Boston College.
Even with offseason changes, a fourth consecutive bowl appearance is a realistic possibility, but most observers think the Terrapins' youth and inexperience will prevent Maryland from seriously threatening the ACC's upper echelon and enjoying the success Friedgen's teams had early this decade.
"For this team to play good," Friedgen said, "we've got to play more consistently."
Staff writers Zach Berman and Steve Yanda contributed to this report.