The start of Maryland's first full-throttle practice of the week yesterday was what might be expected from a team that had surrendered 49 points five days earlier. Collision after tackle-refining collision, with the popping loud enough to be heard halfway across campus.
"Coaches are never happy," Coach Ron Vanderlinden said.
There were two casualties to starters. Left cornerback Lewis Sanders suffered a slight groin pull on the wet turf and defensive end Peter Timmins's left shoulder popped out of place during the tackling drill. Both missed most of the two-hour session, but Vanderlinden expects them to play in Saturday's road game against Wake Forest.
The emphasis on tackling was appropriate because Maryland's defensive players are as puzzled as most fans by their sudden collapse, how they could have gone from allowing a total of 10 points in their first three games to allowing 49 in a loss to then-No. 9 Georgia Tech last Thursday. Even Vanderlinden said their confidence has been "stung."
"Our job is to get them to remember who they are and to get that confidence back," Vanderlinden said. "A lot of playing defense, doing anything really, is feeling good about yourself. Having a little bit of swagger to you. Hopefully, this week we can restore that."
Vanderlinden also said there will be "open" competition to either push slumping punter Sean Starner into more consistency or replace him. Starner is a redshirt junior and the only punter on scholarship. His competition seems to be walk-on freshman Brooks Barnard, who also backs up place kicker Brian Kopka. Sophomore Roger Evans, who punted for Lackawanna (Pa.) Junior College last season, also may be in the mix.
Starner punted three times in 1997 and averaged 35.4 yards, but did not punt last season. Against West Virginia two games ago, he averaged 29 yards on five kicks. He started well against Georgia Tech with kicks of 40, 40 and 39 yards that were high enough to cause the returner to fair catch each.
But an eight-yard punt near the end of the first half helped set up a pivotal touchdown by Georgia Tech and Starner's first effort of the second half went 14 yards. Barnard had the final punt of the game. It went 35 yards and was returned 13.
Vanderlinden said he would not comment on the punting competition or reveal later in the week who will start against the Demon Deacons. In the period yesterday that featured a heavy rush, Barnard had by far the longer punts.
As part of the confidence-building effort for the defense, Vanderlinden said no lineup changes will be made but added that sophomore Tony Okanlawon probably will play more at right cornerback, where Renard Cox starts. Okanlawon started the final six games last season but suffered a hamstring injury during fall practice.
Cox seemed to be beaten a few times against Georgia Tech. But Vanderlinden said Cox should have gotten help from free safety Shawn Forte on the catch Dez White turned into an 80-yard touchdown midway through the first quarter. The only defensive players Vanderlinden praised were linemen Delbert Cowsette and Kris Jenkins.
Linebacker Aaron Thompson and the other defenders know that Wake Forest's offense has been quite good, but not nearly so varied as Georgia Tech's. With 6-foot-1, 220-pound senior running back Morgan Kane leading the way, the Demon Deacons have run three times as often as they have passed. (Kane is ninth nationally in rushing at 135.8 yards per game.)
"They line up and run straight at you," Thompson said. "There's not a whole lot of motion, maybe a little option. It's mostly power right-at-you football."
Even before practice, Thompson was trying to reestablish his confidence.
"I feel we still have momentum," he said. "We're 3-1 [with shutouts over Temple and West Virginia] and know we still haven't played our best game."
Vanderlinden also offered perspective.
"The theme this year," he said, "was significant improvement [over teams that won a total of five games his first two seasons as coach]. We're a little more than a third of the way through the season -- and someone would have to be blind not to say we're a much better football team."