The Maryland football team, which must win its final two games to avoid its first losing record in Jerry Claiborne's 10 seasons as head coach, is in the midst of a decline in talent that started with its 1978 recruiting class.
That is the consensus of more than a dozen scouts, personnel directors and coaches from the National Football League and Atlantic Coast Conference as to why Maryland has not beaten a ranked nonconference team since the 1975 Gator Bowl and is only 3-5-1 this season going into Saturday's game against second-ranked Clemson.
It is an assessment Claiborne, whose overall record at Maryland is 76-36-3, does not dispute.
"All you have to do is look at the number of pro prospects we've had in past years, compared to this year," Claiborne said.
"Maryland just doesn't have the senior class it normally has," said Gil Brandt, vice president of personnel development for the Dallas Cowboys. "And it's very difficult to win without a talented senior class. I don't know why they don't have the good senior class this year. The coaches sure work hard (at recruiting). But this just seems to be a down year for Maryland."
Of the 13 seniors on the Maryland roster, only two are listed as NFL prospects on the United Combine, a scouting group formed by 16 NFL teams: all-Atlantic Coast Conference running back Charlie Wysocki and linebacker Darnell Dailey. "And both of those guys are in the 'may-make-it' category," said Tom Braatz, Atlanta Falcons' director of player personnel.
Ten former Marylanders were playing in the National Football League at the start this season, according to the NFL office in New York. Four players off the 1980 Maryland team were drafted and seven others signed as NFL or CFL free agents. Three of those are active in the NFL and one in the CFL.
Here are some of the reasons given for Maryland's decline in talent:
Most frequently mentioned is the NCAA's "30-95" rule that limits schools to 30 new scholarships a year; it's designed to prevent the traditional football powers from stockpiling talent. "The 30-95 is finally taking effect (after five years)," said Carl Peterson, director of player personnel for the Philadelphia Eagles. "It's a very healthy trend and it's going to happen all over. It's just hit Maryland earlier than most schools. I think it's very possible that a good recruiting year could put them back at 8-3 or 9-2."
A general lack of enthusiasm surrounding the football program. "My impression is that the program doesn't have much support," said one of the NFL's most respected personnel directors. "I've been there recently for big games and you see 10,000 empty seats. At Penn State (a kid) can play in front of 80,000, so why go to Maryland? Even schools like West Virginia that are coming into the area and competing for athletes have more support than Maryland. A prospect goes to visit those schools and sees that enthusiasm. He wants to go there."
The ACC is much stronger than it was during the mid-1970s when Maryland dominated the conference. "Clemson, North Carolina and North Carolina State all have better players than Maryland," Brandt said. All three schools recruit the Washington-Baltimore area very heavily, plus Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware, some of the same areas on which Maryland depends.
Nationally, this is an "off year" for seniors. Every scout said the 1982 draft will be a shallow one. This senior class was the first group that could be redshirted as freshmen. "All the positions are lacking somewhat, but especially defensive backs," Brandt said. Maryland has allowed 280 yards per game passing this season. Claiborne, who almost never publicly criticizes his players, has criticized his defensive backs.
Maryland's talent has declined, these scouts and coaches say, because of a combination of all these factors. Everyone says the Maryland staff works as hard as any at recruiting. "When's the last time Ohio State had only one pro prospect, Art Schlichter?" asked Mike Allman, the Redskins' director of player personnel. "It's not peculiar to Maryland. They just won't be able to get everybody they want anymore."
He got no arguments from Claiborne:
"We don't have the same number of pro prospects this season. I don't think we have as good a talent as we've had in past seasons. We don't have the speed we'd like to have in our defensive backfield and some of our under coverage people (linebackers).
"But I do think we have enough talent to win eight or nine games if we didn't have so many injuries to key players. Some of those four or five players that have been out since the beginning of the season could have become pro prospects in their senior year."
This theory was supported by several NFL people, such as George Young, general manager of the New York Giants. Young said he has seen Maryland play this season and believes injuries to key players to be the main reason for the team's poor record. Claiborne said that one of Maryland's major problems has been lack of depth to replace injured players.
"They just never got a chance to show how much talent they have," Claiborne continued. "But I'm reluctant to talk about that because injuries are a part of football. I don't want people to think I'm using injuries as an excuse for having a season like we're having."
Maryland is still getting what the talent scouts call "solid college athletes," but not the two or three super athletes that keep the program in the top 30 and keep NFL scouts coming to Byrd Stadium.
The two Maryland players whose draft stock could have risen with good senior-year performances were Wysocki and Dailey. Both were injured early in the season and have missed games. The NFL scouts are retreating.
"Wysocki has no speed," one personnel director said. "He's a good college back who's featured in their offense. He's got 4.9 speed (in the 40-yard dash), but that can't play in the NFL. He'll go to somebody's camp, but that's about it."
(Wysocki said that he got his time down to 4.6 last summer.)
The NFL personnel director added that Dailey, who has 4.7 speed, "doesn't jump out at you." Brandt said Dailey "is having a tough year."
Other than Wysocki and Dailey, fullback Jeff Rodenberger is the only Terrapin senior scouts appeared familiar with, and he was labeled "a second-day pick."
To keep the talent slide from continuing, Claiborne said he and his staff will have to concentrate even harder on recruiting.
One personnel director said that Maryland is well-situated geographically for recruiting, but that Claiborne has been losing more players from within a 300-mile radius, an area in which the school either dominated or got its fair share in years past. Still, most of the NFL people said one good recruiting season is all that separates a 4-6-1 season (Maryland's probable record this season) from 8-3.
Jerry Eisaman, Maryland's offensive coordinator and quarterback coach, left for Florida yesterday when his mother died of cancer. Claiborne will assume Eisaman's duties this week . . . Starting safety Billy McFadden, who broke a bone in his right hand against North Carolina, had surgery yesterday and is out for the season. Wayne Wingfield, who played most of the Tulane game, will probably be his replacement . . . Punter Steve Adams still has a sore Achilles' tendon and has not practiced this week . . . Receiver Russell Davis missed the first two days of practice this week with a bruised back . . . Centers Todd Wright (neck spasms) and Vince Tomasetti (bruised knee) have not practiced, leaving walk-on Doug Miller as the starting center.