A little after 1 o'clock this afternoon, Bruce Perry will buckle his chin strap and jog from the sideline to the middle of the field to join his teammates in Maryland's offensive huddle. Under ordinary circumstances, the 25-yard trot would be routine for Perry, who led the ACC in rushing last season. But after a series of injuries and setbacks over the past 10 months, Perry's season debut today against Duke is a long-awaited moment.
"This has been a tough year for Bruce," said Maryland Coach Ralph Friedgen, who yesterday morning met with Perry just to be sure Perry is ready to play. "He's worked pretty hard to get back where he is. . . . I would just like to see him regain some of the form he had last year and feel good about himself going into this last stretch."
"I just want him to stay healthy. That's really all I want. And get his confidence back."
Those aren't exactly overwhelming expectations, but given that Perry's return has been delayed several times, Friedgen's caution is only natural. Perry initially was injured last December, when he began feeling pain in his abdomen during practice leading up to the Orange Bowl. That injury, eventually diagnosed as calcification of tissue, kept him out of winter workouts, spring practice and summer conditioning, while some teammates privately wondered if the injury really was serious.
A few days after he returned to practice in August, Perry severely tore his left groin muscle when an offensive lineman stepped on his Perry's foot as Perry was running. Then, last month, as he prepared to return for the Sept. 28 game against Wofford, Perry tore some scar tissue away from the groin muscle as he reached backward for a pass during practice, sending him back for more therapy.
Perry has declined nearly all interview requests since he tore his groin muscle, and this week Friedgen decided that Perry was off limits to the media.
Teammates and coaches, though, have said that Perry's frustration built with each successive setback, and Perry began to think about the possibility of sitting out the entire season, then applying to the NCAA for a sixth year to complete his eligibility. (NCAA rules gives athletes five years to use their four seasons of eligibility.) However, Friedgen was wary of getting the request approved. A source familiar with NCAA procedures said the NCAA most likely would not allow a sixth year unless an athlete is injured for both of the seasons he or she misses; when Perry did not participate during the 2000 season, it was because the Terrapins had standout LaMont Jordan at running back.
Last season, replacing Jordan in the starting lineup, Perry rushed for 1,242 yards, the fourth-highest total in school history. He rushed for more than 100 yards in each of the season's first five games and became one of the key players in an offense that set a school record for points scored.
However, as the Terrapins seek their fifth straight win today, Friedgen said Perry's health takes priority over his performance.
"Now, he's back, and my biggest fear is he goes out and hurts it again," Friedgen said, noting that he does not think Perry's conditioning will allow him to be in for more than half of Maryland's offensive plays. "That's going to be what I'm concerned about."
Fifth-year senior Chris Downs, coming off a 212-yard performance that is the highest rushing total by an ACC player this season, will start today's game, and freshman Josh Allen also will play. But many in Maryland's locker room are looking forward to seeing Perry on the field again.
With six regular season games and perhaps a bowl game remaining, Friedgen thinks Perry can give an improving offense a boost. Friedgen said Perry is the team's top receiver out of the backfield and considers his experience an asset.
"I thought [Thursday] he had some burst, catching the ball out of the backfield," Friedgen said. "He does that very well. I think that can give us something to add to our offense. But he does so many more things than just that."