By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 26, 2009
Maryland Coach Ralph Friedgen rarely says this about a football player, much less directly to him, but he had seen enough of Kenny Tate through two weeks of preseason camp to know that the strong safety was not meeting coaches' expectations. The sophomore was far exceeding them.
"When we recruited you, you told me you wanted to be an impact player," Friedgen told Tate. "Right now you are an impact player. Keep playing the way you are playing. You are a force."
Preseason camp usually follows a regimented order under Friedgen. He conducts practice for a few hours and then addresses reporters in his office, sitting in a soft chair and saying specific players are "showing me something" or "not giving us what we had hoped." Praise is rarely effusive, and hyperbole nonexistent, particularly in August.
That changed last week. Sometimes unprompted, Friedgen chose glowing terms to describe Tate, and made clear that no player on either side of the ball has impressed coaches more than the 19-year-old DeMatha alum. Over two days recently, Friedgen compared Tate to a one-man band, a baseball pitcher equipped with an deceptive curveball and fastball, and a basketball guard with a deft spin move. He called Tate's play "sensational."
"We're saying all this, we haven't played a game yet," Friedgen acknowledged. "But I'll tell you what: If he does in the games what he is doing now, he'll get a lot of honors."
The aggressive, unorthodox defense employed by first-year coordinator Don Brown is uniquely suited for Tate's talents because of the player's size, strength and versatility. At 6 feet 4 and 225 pounds, Tate has lined up in coverage in the defensive backfield and also rushed the passer from the linebacker position. Hardly a practice goes by without coaches saying that Tate intercepted another pass or caused general havoc.
"We can't block him," Friedgen gushed.
Starting quarterback Chris Turner, who has the unenviable task of observing an oncoming Tate in practice, hardly catches a breath when describing Tate, saying: "Kenny is a problem. His instincts are so advanced, the way he times up the count when he is blitzing and plays in coverage and reads receivers and reads me and the space he covers just with his wingspan alone, it is really impressive to see. It's something else."
Count Tate among the least impressed with his performance. He said he has a ways to improve, and needs to work on his pass coverage. But he expected to do well and even thrive as a sophomore, because he didn't come to Maryland to blend in.
Tate arrived at Maryland last season with considerable acclaim. He had been ranked the 16th-best wide receiver in the nation by Scout.com and turned down more than 100 scholarship offers to sign with Maryland. But before the start of last season, Tate moved from wide receiver to safety because Friedgen was concerned with depth in the secondary.
"Everybody was like, 'Kenny, I have never seen a 6-4 safety before,' " Tate recalled those close to him telling him. "I was like, 'You know, that is pretty unusual.' "
One of just four true freshmen to see action for the Terrapins last season, Tate played in all 13 games as a reserve safety and a special teams player. He made a career-high three tackles against Eastern Michigan on Sept. 20 and made his first interception in the Humanitarian Bowl victory over Nevada, giving coaches a glimpse of what he could offer this season.
Despite Maryland's considerable depth at wide receiver this season, Friedgen gave Tate the option of moving back to wide receiver this season, and the coach fully expected Tate to do so. Tate told Friedgen he would consider it but never spoke to Friedgen about the issue again.
Tate said he seriously considered moving back to wide receiver and that it was a "close" decision. While he said he still likes the ball in his hands, he feels he is a better fit at safety, a position he has played his entire life.
"I am glad he didn't [move back] because he is a force right now," Friedgen said.
He is also a confident player. When asked if the depth at wide receiver dissuaded Tate from moving back there because of fear of stiff competition, he quickly said: "Nope. I knew I could come out every day and do what I had to do."
During one practice session, coaches took the team's four fastest defensive players and put them on the edge to rush against the tight ends. Friedgen said Tate made four moves before going even five yards and then gave the blockers a spin move to get by.
"He is quick, and then you sit back and try to block him and he runs right over you," Friedgen said. "He's got the fastball and the curve, which make it very hard to hit him."
Friedgen said Tate was so active year-round in sports at DeMatha that he rarely made time for the weight room, so he was not very strong as a Maryland freshman. That's changed this year, as Tate has visibly added muscle.
"Genetically, he walks by the weight room and he gets stronger," Friedgen said. "He has turned into a man."
Tate is neither surprised by his play nor his coach's acknowledgment of it. When Friedgen told him how impressed he was with his practice performance, Tate did not give the praise much thought. He knew he'd be an impact player.
"That's what I told him I was going to do," Tate said. "I don't consider myself a liar."