A football coach is paid handsomely to worry, to wear a full face mask of gloom, to effect panic in public, to fuss enough in private so no frame of film goes undissected and each player feels that what appears to be a dog going against him is actually a lion. Jerry Claiborne is a wonderful worrier.
When the first item about quarterback Whit Taylor in the Vanderbilt press guide is: "Extremely heady performer who gets the most out of his ability," an objective person does not expect to see a Sonny Jurgensen throw-alike against the Terrapins Saturday night in Nashville.
Claiborne cries: "This (Whit) Taylor must be throwin' the ball awful well. They said it was pourin' down rain, they were going against our (defensive) sets a week ago and he completed 11 out of 15 for 208 yards and three touchdowns."
Frightening as that is, Taylor will be throwing toward a Maryland three-man defensive backfield that does not have anyone who has played a second at his position in a game. Also, Maryland has no experienced split ends or centers, and its sacred kicking game is dependent on three inexperienced feet.
Steve Adams may have become the punter by default, Alan Sadler having hurt his foot Wednesday doing nothing more strenuous than running on the artificial-turf practice field. Fake grass can be dangerous.
"The traction is too good on it," Claiborne said, explaining how a player -- all alone -- can turn an ankle very quickly if he isn't careful. Apparently, this is what happened to Sadler. "That's why I don't like the stuff," the coach added.
As the first opponent in Vandy's new 41,000-seat stadium, Maryland will be playing on the dreaded stuff Saturday. If Claiborne is seen grabbing a garden hose and sprinkling Dudley Field just before kickoff, do not be too shaken. Slightly wet artificial turf is safest.
"Arkansas found out that was the best thing," he said. "They did it for years, and hadn't had any (serious) knee injuries at all. They practice on it and play on it. Then they felt they were a little slow or something, so they quit watering it down. And they had something like 12 knee operations that year."
Sober-faced, Claiborne can recite nearly the entire Vandy roster and make each player seem a potential all-pro. Ah, Jerry, somebody might interrupt, these guys were 2-9 last year and 1-10 the year before. They have surrendered 770 points in 22 games, 31 of them in a season-opening rout by your cherubs last year.
"This is their third year there," Claiborne said. "This is Coach (George) MacIntyre's third year and the players have been there three years. They all came back last year; they're all coming back this year. At the end of last season, they were playing a lot better than when they played us."
At the absolute end of last season, Tennessee scored 20 more points against the accommodating Commodores than Maryland had. But Claiborne already was into another especially prickly area: how to get a line on the Vanderbilt offense. He thought the best spot might be Austin Peay game films.
The new Vandy offensive mind, Watson Brown, devised a multiple-offense scheme that helped Austin Peay to successive 7-4 seasons. Try as he might, Claiborne said, he cannot get a handle on what Brown will do at Vandy.
"They (Austin Peay) ran wishbone, I, veer, no backs in the backfield, twins, everything you can think of," he said. Laughing, he added: "That was in one game."
Maryland is prepared for more.
"We've run reverses, halfback passes, reverse passes, swinging gates (a quick-huddle play), everything we can think of (against the Terrapin defense)," he said, "to try to make sure we don't come up against something we haven't seen. We've gone unbalanced line, practiced against everything we can think of.
"That's something you always worry about, somebody pulling the unexpected (in the season opener). But we never have been (surprised), thank goodness. I hope it doesn't happen Saturday."
Claiborne's idea of multiple offense, of course, has been to run the tailback left AND right. It has been very successful, if not wildly entertaining, although last season's quarterback (Mike Tice) is playing the position with the NFL Seattle Seahawks many second guessers thought was his best all along: tight end.
There are hints Claiborne will go airborne more this year, to sell tickets as well as create more open space for Charlie Wysocki on those familiar sweeps. The coach was even deeply involved in creating a new passing play as he walked from the practice field to the dressing quarters the other day.
To make him fret just a bit more, the Vanderbilt game is a homecoming of sorts for Claiborne. He was raised in Hopkinsville, Ky., 60 miles from Nashville. And, yes, he was glued to WSM and enchanted by Roy Acuff when country wasn't cool.
Having valiantly tried to make Vandy seem dandy, Claiborne lamented, and then relented.
"We've got some spots where we're gonna find out what they (his untested players) will do when the whistle blows," he said. There is no more unsettling feeling for a coach, and Maryland lost five likely starters to offseason injuries. "A lotta question marks," Claiborne added. "But I'm anxious to see how we play, how we look against somebody else. I'm looking forward to that whistle blowing, to getting started, to seeing how we do. I really am."