For a few days, it looked as though one more injury or illness to a Maryland center would force some youngster fresh out of high school into practicing as the first-team snapper. Now, with one position change and one player healthy, the Terrapins are three-deep at center, but the coaches still are looking for clues to which one will become the starter.
"After a while, this will become a real position of strength," the offensive line coach, Ralph Friedgen, said yesterday, "but right now there's a bit of a logjam and it's a little unsettling."
The Terrapins have known since the end of last season that replacing graduated center Kevin Glover would be among the most difficult things they would have to do this fall. But finding his successor has become even more complicated because of midsummer back surgery that will keep projected starter John Perna out for at least three games, and because of David Amend's recent mild case of pneumonia.
By the first workout, redshirt freshman John Rugg was the only player on the depth chart with extensive practice time at the position. If something had happened to him, 17-year-old freshman Mark Rockroth would have been thrown into action.
But fortunately for the Terrapins, Amend recovered sufficiently to practice just in time for the first workouts in pads. And sophomore Billy Hughes, who already has played guard and tackle, has shown further versatility by playing well at center through the first week.
Rugg and Hughes are practicing with the first-team offense now, but as Amend's strength improves -- he says his breathing should be back to normal in "a couple of days" -- the plan is to move Amend back to the first team and let Hughes play wherever Maryland needs him. "That's unless Billy is clearly the best center," Friedgen said, then started to laugh. "I think."
Center is the only unsettled starting position on the offense and, no matter who starts, he'll have no experience. Amend played last year as a defensive tackle. Hughes played mostly tackle and Rugg didn't play at all. "How will they play when the lights go on?" Friedgen said, anticipating the question. "We may play with two centers, at least, like we did our first year here (1982)."
Maryland probably would be playing with only one center, Perna, if he hadn't needed back surgery. "At the end of the spring, he was the center," Friedgen said. "He played above expectations. We didn't know it then, but he did it with a bad back from working with the weights over the winter. You have to wonder how well he'll play healthy."
Perna, a 260-pound redshirt sophomore, can only practice snaps now but is hoping to return for the third or fourth game of the season.
Amend, a redshirt sophomore, is the most imposing of the center candidates. "I was in the best shape of my life," he said. "I had gotten to 270 (pounds) and was running a 4.8 40-yard dash."
But he was helpless less than two weeks ago when, after a run on the beach at Ocean City, he began feeling feverish. "I already had a slight cold from the air conditioning. But I started to feel worse," he recalled yesterday. "I started spitting up blood. The next day I went home and saw a doctor. He said it was a bad virus, and if the blood persisted, go and get a chest X-ray. So that's what I did, and they told me it was mild pneumonia. I was in bed for a week."
Amend is a target of heavy teasing from his teammates because he managed to miss all two-a-day drills last year with a sprained ankle and had to be cautious about practice his freshman year after a virus took off 12 pounds just as camp began.
Friedgen originally had Hughes practice a few minutes at center "as a safety valve." The coaches voted Hughes the most improved player on the team during the spring; they'd like to keep him available as a "swing" man.
Hughes said, "This might sound strange, but because I already know the guard position, it's easier to make the transition to center, and the hardest part is the snapping of the ball and stepping while you snap. You have to get used to having one hand between your legs while you start to try and block somebody."
Rugg made a comparable improvement in the spring, and the coaches are impressed with his approach. "He's very goal-oriented," Friedgen said. "He's an electrical engineering major with better than a 3.0 (B) average. He's very detailed, and it carries over into football."