The loss of strong safety Tony Jackson for at least half the season with a broken left ankle is especially tough for Maryland. It rearranges two positions, forces everyone in the secondary to be more alert and almost certainly hastens the defensive debut of Randall Jones, the backup quarterback as recently as five days ago.
"Tony, more than anyone, understands our scheme," defensive backs coach Doug Mallory said yesterday as the Terrapins began practice for Saturday's home game against Western Carolina. "He also was our backup free safety, and kind of a quarterback in helping get everyone back there lined up and putting us in the appropriate coverage."
Jackson's backup, sophomore Rod Littles, started twice and played in all 11 games as a freshman last season. Littles will open at strong safety Saturday and Mallory may do some maneuvering with his cornerbacks if something happens to free safety Shawn Forte.
Linebacker Aaron Thompson, who had 15 tackles in the season opening victory against Temple on Thursday, probably will see much more action than usual in obvious passing situations.
Jones is listed as the number two strong safety. He was moved to the other side of the line of scrimmage because redshirt freshman quarterback Calvin McCall played so well against Temple and freshman Latrez Harrison has so much potential.
"I want to work him in slow," Mallory said of Jones. "I had him [during fall practice last year before he was switched to offense and became the starting quarterback]. He's smart. I've been impressed with what he's been able to pick up [about playing safety] being a quarterback."
Jones came to Maryland last year from the Naval Academy prep school as a safety. He said after practice that he would not have balked at starting fall practice at the position.
"I'd be a lot farther ahead," he said. "Right now I'm a little lost or whatever. But it's a lot of fun."
The Terrapins were in more trouble than many fans sensed against Temple, because starting left cornerback Lewis Sanders left the game with a concussion at almost the same time Jackson broke his ankle. That meant the defense played nearly the entire fourth quarter without half its secondary, a situation that forced the coaches to use mostly basic formations and had linebackers chasing wide receivers at times.
That Temple was within three yards of probable victory on the game's last play was scary enough for Mallory and the other coaches. But Sanders's backup, senior Bryn Boggs, was able to bat away a pass in the deep corner of the right end zone and ensure the 6-0 victory.
A review of the play caused the coaches to gulp even harder, because a Terrapin on the other side of the field had blown a call and left a wide receiver open.
When he considered all the improvising, Mallory was pleased with his unit. And in junior Sanders and senior Renard Cox, he has cornerbacks who have played safety at Maryland and thus offer flexibility should another emergency arise. Sanders was more fortunate against Temple than in the final game of the 1997 season, when he suffered nerve damage in his shoulder and missed all of last season.
Sanders worked with the first unit during the entire session yesterday.
"We tell our guys to stick together, to make a commitment for four quarters regardless of what happens," Mallory said. "It was good to see it pay off."
Terrapins Notes: Starting running back LaMont Jordan seemed to pull up in pain near the end of a postpractice sprint. Coach Ron Vanderlinden said Jordan bruised a thigh against Temple but should "be ready to go" Saturday. Jordan declined an interview request. Vanderlinden said Jordan's backup, Mookie Sikyala, was doubtful with an ankle sprain and added: "We're pretty banged up."