Part of a defense's problem in trying to stop Maryland's running game is just remembering which backs are in the game. In the same series, a defender could get run over by Rick Badanjek, beaten by the speed of Alvin Blount or confused by Tommy Neal, who can use either speed or power.
None has rushed for 1,000 yards in a season, although all three probably would if they didn't have to share time. But none of them are complaining. Together, they give Maryland a most versatile and highly productive backfield; one so strong, in fact, that it may be the strength of the team's acclaimed offense.
Badanjek, because he now is a national magazine cover person, is the only one well known outside the Atlantic Coast Conference. Even though he was the designated short-yardage man last year (15 touchdowns), the senior fullback's "stubby little legs," as he calls them, allowed him to run for 832 yards and averaged 4.8 yards per carry.
Blount, a junior tailback whom Coach Bobby Ross describes as "the glider," averaged 5.9 yards per carry through 759 total rushing yards. And Neal -- "he's more of an accelerator," Ross said -- rushed for 618 yards and six touchdowns from both tailback and fullback positions.
"They're dramatically different in the way they play the game," Ross said. "But they seem to complement each other very well."
But having three backs, none of whom was forced to carry the ball 200 times, keeps them rested. "It seems like being rested and having such different styles gives us an advantage over the defense late in the game," Neal said.
It certainly seemed that way for several games last year. Against West Virginia, Blount rushed for 109 yards. The next week against Wake Forest, Badanjek ran for 104 on 17 carries. Three weeks later at Duke, Neal went for 122 yards on nine rushes. Seven days after that, Badanjek scored four touchdowns at North Carolina.
Fast forward two games to Clemson. Blount rushed for 214 yards and Neal picked up 113 in 13 carries. And n the season finale at Virginia, Badanjek rushed for 217 yards and Blount ran nine times for 104.
Badanjek even managed to break a couple of long runs at Virginia, for 65 and 72 yards. "On one of those long ones, I got up from throwing a block," Blount recalled, "and I couldn't believe Rick was still running, and running, and running. I couldn't wait to see what happened in the end."
Badanjek, 5 feet 9, 217 pounds, felt so good on the long runs he joked recently, "I've had enough of this short-yardage specialist stuff. I want to break a few more long ones this year . . . 60, 70 yards a couple of times would be nice."
Maryland (and Badanjek) will be perfectly content for Badnajek to do what he does best: pick up the third-and-twos and fourth-and-goals like an all-America. Of his 34 career rushing touchdowns, 23 have come from the three-yard line or within. He likes to batter defenders. Asked what he likes to do most on the field, Badanjek said, "Block. I know that's the same thing I said last year, and maybe the year before, but I love it."
Contrast that with Blount, who has been clocked running the 40-yard dash in 4.45 seconds. "Alvin's more an open-field runner than Tommy or me," Badanjek said. Ross said that Blount is deceptive "because he doesn't look like he's moving as fast as he is."
Blount and Neal are about the same size (between 5-10 and 5-11, 194 to 200 pounds). But as Blount said, "Tommy has a little Rick in him, actually he's a mixture of Rick and me. Tommy can run you over, or shake you. Me, I want to get by you. Without you touching me if I can."
Blount, who attended Eleanor Roosevelt High, wasn't as well known in high school as Neal, an all-Met player at Magruder. He used to read about about Neal all the time.
Neal, who like Blount is a junior, has the explosiveness of a fullback. "I'm a reckless runner," he said. " . . . I didn't know, when I came here, that I would be splitting time this way. But this is great."
Badanjek pointed out that having three such backs "makes for a great rotation. Usually, Coach (Jim) Cavanaugh has us rotating by series. But if we get tired, we can just raise a hand, and have one of the other guys come in. All three of us know both positions. And one guy doesn't have to worry when he leaves because a rested guy is coming in for him."
All three are also good pass receivers, having combined for 52 catches last season.
They combined to rush for 2,308 yards last year and could conceivably improve that figure to nearly 3,000 -- even in Ross' balanced offense. Ross would like to avoid games like last year -- against Syracuse, Vanderbilt and Penn State -- when the team fell behind and almost abandoned the running game.
"It gives me a lot of pleasure to watch Rick and Tommy rush for 100 yards," Neal said. "I think we all help each other to be better in certain areas. Together, we can hopefully help the team in whatever way they need us."
Senior Kenny Vierra, at least for now, has won the backup quarterback job, Ross said yesterday. "Our decision to go with Kenny was based on our estimation of being a shade ahead of (freshman Drew Komlo and sophomore Dan Henning) at this stage, and just putting it all together a bit better," Ross said. "This isn't anything we're locked into (for the full season) because they're all so equal. But we had to get a decision done to go out and get the proper amount of work for him (in preparation for the Sept. 7 season opener). It could still change from week to week." . . .
Ross said Wednesday's scrimmage -- the team's last full contact work before the first game -- will be closed to everyone, even reporters and pro football scouts, who previously have been allowed in. Ross was asked if he was doing this because of reports that Penn State scouts were lurking.
"That's a laugher to me," Ross said. "I know (Penn State Coach) Joe Paterno quite well . . . so I have absolutely none of that suspicion at all. It's just that we have more and more people wanting to see us now, and I'm just afraid that something will leak out. If I say this particular scout, or this particular person couldn't come in, it would be unfair, so I felt it would just be best to completely close it . . . I think our players need to be completely locked in to that scrimmage on Wednesday."