As Jeff Dugan was walking out to practice this week, one of Maryland's assistant coaches told the starting tight end to stay with the offensive linemen for a few extra minutes. A teammate joked that Dugan, who wears No. 82, would look good in a jersey more befitting a lineman, perhaps No. 68.
As the Terrapins prepare to put their five-game winning streak on the line today at North Carolina, their offensive line is nearing a crisis situation.
With two of the unit's top six players likely out today and a third expected to play despite an injury, the team's coaching staff is seeking any and every possible solution. That includes checking to see if Dugan can play either center or tackle in an emergency.
"We're about at rock bottom right now," Maryland Coach Ralph Friedgen said, noting that Dugan attended the offensive line's positional meetings this week and has learned five plays at tackle.
Friedgen and his staff have known that depth was an issue since the season started. Normally, Friedgen would want to have 17 offensive linemen on scholarship, but the Terrapins entered the season with just 13 and just six of those have played with any regularity. However, with three players capable of playing more than one position, Maryland had successfully masked the situation, opening holes for running backs Chris Downs and Josh Allen and protecting quarterback Scott McBrien.
Now, though, right tackle Matt Crawford (sprained knee) and center Kyle Schmitt (shoulder) are out because of injuries, and center Todd Wike is expected to start despite a hyperextended big toe. Freshman Stephon Heyer is expected to make his first career start at left tackle, and today's reserves will be an untested group that includes junior Ed Tyler, who is playing with a fractured fibula.
Things aren't much better on the defensive line, where tackle C.J. Feldheim is out for the season after injuring his knee in last week's victory over Duke. Fifth-year senior William Shime will make his first career start today, and Friedgen is hopeful that defensive end Scott Smith will be able to play after missing the past two games because of a back injury.
Beyond those two, Maryland is looking at an unproven assortment. The coaching staff is trying to devise ways around the problem, including the possibility of using linebacker Shawne Merriman essentially as a defensive end, an alignment that would leave the Terrapins with just two linemen and five linebackers.
"Keep moving on and hopefully somebody will come on and pick up the slack," Friedgen said. "You've got to get your best players on the field, not just any players. We're going to try to find some solutions there."
But as Friedgen scoured his roster for potential replacements, he found none. In fact, after ankle injuries to reserve offensive tackle Lou Lombardo and freshman defensive tackle David Quaintance, Maryland was having trouble finding enough healthy linemen to practice against.
While injuries are a problem, so is attrition. From Maryland's past five scholarship recruiting classes, 15 of the 22 players who left the team before completing their eligibility were linemen, including 10 of 21 offensive linemen and five of 14 defensive linemen. Those figures do not include walk-ons, such as former second-string center Brandon Miller, who quit the team before last season, or players who committed to Maryland but did not qualify academically, such as defensive end Jerome McDougle, now a standout for defending national champion and top-ranked Miami.
Some players transferred to play at a lower level. Others dropped out, flunked out or were suspended from the team and did not return. A handful had medical conditions that ended their playing careers.
"That really surprises me," said offensive coordinator Charlie Taaffe when told of the attrition among linemen. "Most places I've been, the linemen, particularly the offensive linemen, are pretty stable and normally good students and guys who played because they love the game. They don't get a lot of recognition and individual attention. That normally is a pretty cohesive unit."
Friedgen said he hopes to have at least six offensive linemen and four defensive linemen in this year's recruiting class. He acknowledged that he and his staff are looking for immediate help, such as prep schoolers or high schoolers who can enroll for the second semester and participate in spring practice. Getting a junior college player or two would help, but it does not seem likely because of academic restrictions.
So far, Friedgen said, he has oral commitments from two offensive linemen and no defensive linemen. Still, adding recruits provides little short-term remedy because it usually takes at least one, if not two, seasons to develop a lineman.
"It's like anything else," Friedgen said. "The higher the quality, the more difficult it is to recruit them. And I've been pretty strict. I don't want to just recruit guys."