Less than two years after being cut from the Maryland soccer team because he was a 142-pound weakling, Jess Atkinson has become one of the five best college field goal kickers in the nation.
Less than two months after narrowly winning the starting job from a walk-on and a tight end, Terrapin punter Alan Sadler averaged 44 yards per kick Saturday at Syracuse.
The kicking game has become one of the bright spots of Maryland football this season. Atkinson, who joined the team last year as a walk-on at Sadler's suggestion, has made nine of 10 field goal attempts and all nine conversion tries.
"I can't say enough about Alan and Jess," Coach Bobby Ross said yesterday.
Their teammates feel the same way, but for many different reasons.
Sadler and Atkinson, both from Crossland High School in Prince George's County, call themselves "The Crossland Connection." They've known each other since fifth grade.
"Call them the blow dry twins," quarterback Boomer Esiason said. Once, at a high school game, when Atkinson was lying in an ambulance after injuring his knee, he told his mother he'd rather Sadler ride with him to the hospital than her.
"They're two of the flashier boys on the team," said defensive tackle Mike Corvino.
"They're both idiots," said Esiason.
Atkinson, who bears a resemblance to Redskin quarterback Joe Theismann, has been two feet left of perfection this year. His 36-yard attempt in the second quarter against North Carolina State two weeks ago was his only miss. "It was a stupid mistake," he said. "I didn't get my left (nonkicking) foot far enough ahead of the tee and hooked it."
Atkinson responded by kicking four field goals against Syracuse, including all three he has attempted beyond the 40-yard line. He made a 71-yarder in practice recently and said he feels confident from 57 yards and in. Atkinson, a junior academically, but a sophomore in eligibility, is heavier (168 pounds) after participating in extensive summer conditioning.
He carries a psycho-cybernetics book and is tutored by Dick Johnson, whose "power of concentration" theories helped Nick Lowery, the all-pro place kicker with the NFL's Kansas City Chiefs. Atkinson's kickoffs, either over the end zone or unreturnably high, have kept Maryland opponents in poor field position.
It was Sadler who convinced Atkinson to attend spring practice in 1981 after being he was cut from the soccer team.
Sadler's season has been less glamorous, but his improvement has been no less important to the Terrapins. He broke his left (nonkicking) foot three times, the third time in July, and started slowly this fall. Ross has made him kick competitively in practice almost every week, which Sadler disliked initially.
"I have to admit it's made me a better kicker," Sadler said. "I still can't seem to get my first punt of the day up high, and Coach Ross always gets on me when I get to the sidelines."
Sadler has raised his net punting average from about 25 yards per kick to 34. Ross said he'll be happy when the net average gets to about 37 yards.
Starting offensive tackle Harry Venezia, who tore a ligament in his knee against North Carolina State, is out for the season and has been red-shirted. He will be eligible for a fifth season next year . . . Dave D'Addio will start at fullback Saturday against Indiana State . . . Maryland's rushing defense is ranked third nationally, behind Notre Dame and North Carolina.