Three confident players -- two sophomores, one freshman -- greeted the media in Maryland's locker room yesterday, each believing he could open the season as the team's starting quarterback.
Maryland's coaching staff plans to tap one as the starter in a week, once it can adequately evaluate the three in practice. For now, though, Coach Ralph Friedgen is preaching patience.
"You guys [media] were ready to sell Scott McBrien out after the first game," said Friedgen, entering what he said could be his most challenging season yet at Maryland. "They'll develop. You think I wave a magic wand and make this stuff happen? This is going to take a little time. They are not going to be a finished product right away."
The quarterback battle promises to be the most intriguing subplot of Maryland's summer training camp, which began yesterday. The leader, and the starter if the Terps played tomorrow, is sophomore Joel Statham, who performed well through most of spring practice and is the only candidate with collegiate game experience.
Statham and sophomore Sam Hollenbach, who closed on Statham after the spring game, will get nearly the same amount of practice snaps, offensive coordinator Charlie Taaffe said. Freshman Jordan Steffy and Ryan Mitch also will be evaluated.
"We've got about a window of a week to decide which direction we're going to go, at least to start . . . ," Taaffe said. "We're going to have to plot a course and stick to the course [after a week], because we haven't even practiced yet and in a little over three weeks, we are going to play a game."
The wild card is Steffy, the 18-year-old Pennsylvania high school standout who has undisputed physical gifts. He recently ran a 4.47 in the 40-yard dash. The question is whether he is emotionally ready to lead a program that is one of five nationally to have won at least 10 games the past three seasons. While the coaching staff is cautious not to push Steffy too soon, Friedgen said that he would have no qualms about starting a freshman if he felt he were ready.
"I'm very confident," Steffy said. "But going in with the mind-set that I'm going to be the starter I don't think is the right thing to do."
Steffy is a devout student of the game. He has called Joe Hamilton, the former Georgia Tech quarterback who played under Friedgen, and plans to call former Terps quarterback Boomer Esiason next week. Steffy received a copy of Maryland's four-inch-thick playbook after he signed with the Terps, and now feels comfortable with 75 to 80 percent of the primary concepts.
"I don't think you can ever truly learn it from the entire time you are here," Statham said, "because they have so many plays. For the part that I know now, it has taken me two years to learn it."
That said, Statham feels more prepared than when he faced a blitzing Georgia Tech team in October after McBrien was knocked out of the game. Statham completed 12 of 25 pass attempts for 156 yards and one interception in 2003.
Hollenbach wants to improve his consistency and to avoid letting a few poor plays snowball into a bad practice. Like the other two candidates, he can envision starting the opener against Northern Illinois.
"It's something that I've been working for," Hollenbach said. "That's what you want to tell yourself in your mind, that you expect to be the starter."
Notes: Shawne Merriman has improved his bench press by 55 pounds to 435 since spring. The junior expects to strictly play defensive end this season and not "Leo," the hybrid linebacker-end position, as the team switches to a traditional 4-3 alignment. . . .
Friedgen supports ACC-sponsored legislation that would grant football players five years of eligibility and eliminate redshirting. In hope of it passing, Friedgen has considered not redshirting some freshmen this year but acknowledged that the move would be a risk if the legislation does not pass.
"My tendency is to do what we have to do to be successful this year," he said, "and worry about next year next year."