The Maryland Terrapins start the 1987 college football season with many things, but it's something that's missing that may prove the most helpful.
Last season there was no escape anywhere in Maryland's athletic department from the questions associated with the June 1986 death of basketball star Len Bias. After the football team started 3-0, it won just two of the last eight games to finish with a 5-5-1 record. That only one of the losses was by more than a touchdown only added to the frustration.
A year later, coach Bobby Ross is gone, off to Georgia Tech, replaced by long-time assistant Joe Krivak. Also gone is a lot of the tension that seemed to occupy every corner of the campus last year. Whether it's Krivak's down-to-earth, relaxed manner or just the passage of time, the Terrapins seem more at ease with the world.
"I don't know if it was that we didn't get the breaks or it was the outside distractions -- it just wasn't a good year," fifth-year senior guard Dave Amend said. "But everyone has a new outlook. The defense is changed and people are excited about that. We have a few new wrinkles in the offense, and overall the atmosphere is better. There is no question about the talent. It's just a matter of putting it together and doing it on Saturday."
The 52-year-old Krivak -- who, as quarterbacks and receivers coach, understood the power of the passing game -- had the top job for barely five minutes before he scrapped the wide-tackle six defense that Ross and his predecessor, Jerry Claiborne, had used. The evolution of the passing game (which was hastened by rule changes that allow offensive linemen more use of their hands) made the wide-tackle six, with only three defensive backs, vulnerable to the big play.
"With three guys back and eight guys up around the ball," Krivak said, "you don't have to be a genius to figure out that you shouldn't run as much."
The new multiple 50 defense is basically a 3-4, with four defensive backs. In the middle of the line will be senior nose guard and captain Bob Arnold (6 foot 3, 261 pounds). Along one side will be senior Bob Klein (6-4, 262) and on the other junior Warren Powers (6-6 1/2, 275).
The four linebackers are all red-shirt seniors, except for inside linebacker Kevin Walker, who is a regular senior. Also in the middle will be Richie Petitbon, while Sean Scott and O'Brien Alston will probably start on the outside.
"They're perkin' along," defensive coordinator Greg Williams said of his front seven. Williams also looks after the secondary, which is where most of the question marks lie on defense. Unless there is an injury -- which would be especially troublesome in this area -- redshirt freshman Mike Hollis will start at one corner, while junior Irvin Smith mans the other. J.B. Brown, the only starter back from last year, will be the strong safety and red-shirt junior Chad Sydnor will be the free safety. They are all good athletes, but they haven't played together before.
"At least the kids we do put on the field will be able to run," Williams said. "If they do make a mistake, it probably won't get in the end zone."
Getting in the end zone should not be a great problem for the Terrapin offense. With the return of wide receiver Azizuddin Abdur-Ra'oof from an Achilles' tendon rupture, the receiving corps is bursting with talent. Ra'oof had 60 catches his first two years and nine before his injury last year. Vernon Joines replaced him and caught 28 passes, while teammate James Milling had 33. The best of the group might be 6-6, 235-pound tight end Ferrell Edmunds, who caught 28 passes last year. There are enough good receivers that Maryland has contemplated a one-back set, which would put three receivers in at once.
Throwing nearly all those passes last year was senior Dan Henning, who set several Terrapins passing marks. But the key to success this year will be how well Maryland mixes running with passing. In 1986, Maryland averaged 136.1 yards per game rushing and 248.0 yards per game passing.
"I think the running game will be much better than last year, and that's going to help the passing game," said Henning, who completed 55.5 percent of his 1986 passes. "I think we threw more than we wanted to last year."
Henning's confidence in the running game stems from the return of the entire offensive line, along with several capable backups. Captain Bill Hughes (6-5, 276) will be the center, with junior Richard Nelson (6-4, 268) or Amend (6-4, 273) on one side and redshirt junior John Rugg (6-2, 262) on the other. Fifth-year senior John Sorna (6-4 1/2, 280) will probably start at right tackle and redshirt sophomore Mark Agent (6-5, 264) will probably go at left tackle. Ben Jefferson (6-9, 317) will probably also see a lot of action.
The Terrapins lost three solid running backs from last year's team -- Alvin Blount, Tommy Neal and Stephon Scriber. Redshirt sophomore Bren Lowery will start at tailback. Last year, Lowery carried the ball 59 times for 317 yards (5.4 yard average). In the season-ending win over Virginia, Lowery ran 71 yards for a touchdown on the first play from scrimmage. Junior Keith Bullock and sophomore Dennis Spinelli both are expected to play at fullback.
"Offensive conistency and stability is based on the offensive line," Henning said. "And I think we have an excellent offensive line. We have depth, probably eight guys who can play and play well. And that's what the running game comes down to."