Yesterday, for the first time in six seasons, Maryland began fall practice without knowing who the team's tailback would be.
Steve Atkins and Charlie Wysocki made the position almost worry free year after year. But now there are questions.
The top returning rusher, senior John Nash, is out indefinitely while being treated for an ulcer. The leading contenders for starting tailback are both inexperienced and had limited playing time last year -- junior Willie Joyner and sophomore Vernon Carter.
There is no need for either one to match Wysocki's productivity. Maryland's all-time rushing leader twice ran for more than 1,000 yards, but the new offense of Coach Bobby Ross won't require one tailback to carry the ball 30 or 40 times as Wysocki did.
"Neither one is what I'd call a blazer, but Vernon and Willie are both durable enough to carry the ball 25 times," Ross said yesterday, after the first of two practice sessions. "Willie had the best agility drill test time on the team. And Vernon is 15 pounds heavier and the same speed." Although both are faster than Wysocki, neither is fast enough to be a breakaway runner.
"They'll be interchangable; all of our backs will be," said Jim Cavanaugh, the Terrapin running backs coach. "In the past years the fullback was primarily a blocker for the tailback, and the tailback primarily ran out of one or two formations.
"Now, we'll be passing more to our backs. They'll carry the ball from more formations. They'll handle the ball 15 or 20 times per game, but it won't all be rushing. Both Willie and Vernon will play a lot. And both will have to be consistent in running, pass catching and blocking. They'll have to master all the skills."
Joyner (5-foot-10, 196 pounds) rushed for 96 yards against West Virginia last year in Maryland's second game, but suffered from lower body injuries the rest of the season and didn't play much.
Like Wysocki, Joyner will dip a shoulder and challenge a linebacker. "I'm a pick-my-holes runner and I think that's good because there are lots of angles to play in our new offense," Joyner said. "If I need a little power though, I can call on it."
Carter, who got into five games last year as a freshman, is the nephew of former Terrapin halfback Louis Carter, who started in the early 1970s. Carter (5-11 and 195) considers his lateral movement and ability to evade tacklers his strong points.
Joyner and Carter say they are still finding it a little hard to believe that one of them will line up in Wysocki's position in just three weeks when Maryland begins its season at Penn State.
"Charlie was a legend for three years," Joyner said. "I got to play last year when he was injured and I was real nervous playing behind him. When I was a freshman I first noticed that he had real good foot movement. He'd be in the air and still moving his feet."
Said Carter: "Charlie carried the ball 50 times in one game, and anybody who can do that will be hard to replace. But it's not really replacing Charlie because there are a bigger variety of plays, insofar as formations."
Many of the formations will have the backs catching passes, which rarely happened in the last 10 years under run-oriented coach Jerry Claiborne. Joyner caught 10 passes last year, but he and Carter will have to show this fall they are capable of running precise pass routes and serving as primary receivers.
Nash, who had gained more than 700 yards rushing and receiving last year, was not the only running back to miss the team's opening practice. Dave D'Addio, a junior fullback who missed last season with a knee injury, will be out at least a week with a pulled groin muscle. Wayne Wingfield, a senior defensive back, is also out for a few days with a groin injury.