In 2001, Ray Custis was a redshirt freshman at Maryland, buckling under the crush of a seemingly incessant series of meetings, practices, team meals and study sessions. His grade-point average dropped below 2.0, and in order to travel with the team to the Orange Bowl, he had to write a letter to an academic dean explaining his situation.

Always blunt, Custis spoke his mind, writing, "I was too busy as a football player making money for the University of Maryland."

The memory draws laughs from Custis now and signifies how far the senior has come during his five years in College Park. Coach Ralph Friedgen said during the spring that there was a time when he wondered how much Custis cared about football. He no longer wonders.

Friedgen says Custis has matured into a business savvy entrepreneur who will graduate in December and a leader in the Terrapins' revamped secondary who will make his first start at free safety Saturday against Northern Illinois.

"I have a different perspective on things," Custis said. "I know I've grown mentally tougher. I feel like I've matured mentally. I've definitely grown drastically because as a freshman your mind is immature, you're all over the place with things. As you get older it's time to focus in on what you really want to do."

The task is daunting. At free safety, Custis replaces Madieu Williams, a second-team all-ACC performer last season regarded by some magazines as a top five free safety nationally. During his college career, Custis has played cornerback and both safety positions and has had action mostly in nickel and dime packages, experience that is expected to ease the transition.

"He's kind of the quarterback on our defense," Friedgen said. "He makes all the calls and puts us in the right coverage. He's really grown into a leadership capacity and is well respected."

Both of Maryland's safeties are former Montgomery County prep standouts who entered college playing another position. Maryland's starting strong safety, Chris Kelley, played quarterback, and Custis played running back.

Custis tore his meniscus while playing football his junior year of high school, an injury that required surgery and sidelined him for the season. He still traveled with the team, but could only watch from the sideline, supported by crutches. But he recovered in time to play point guard for the basketball team that winter and competed in track, where he became regional outdoor champion in the 200 meters. The injury has shown no lasting effects.

Today, despite his size -- 5 feet 9, 188 pounds -- Custis is one of the most athletic Maryland players. He has recorded the highest strength index (809) on the team for the second straight season, a mark that ranks as the best ever by a Maryland defensive back. He's run a 4.4 40-yard dash, benched 400 pounds and squatted 595 pounds.

"I want to prove a lot of things to myself because I know there are a lot of people who weren't convinced or were like, 'Can he do it?' " Custis said. "A lot of people look at my size. I want to prove to people that with a little bit of hard work and faith in God, anything is possible."

Custis dedicated his senior season at Northwest High to his late grandfather, who had been a pastor for 43 years. His grandfather had always preached honesty and integrity. "Your word is your bond," Custis's father, Harvey, said. "Ray took that to heart."

The mantra has helped Custis cultivate working relationships. This summer, Custis and his friend, Bobby Coleman, worked as partners with ACN, a telecom company based in 17 countries. Among other duties, Custis hosted frequent receptions at his parents' home and occasionally spoke before as many 300 people during forums.

"I like to see other people with smiles on their faces," Custis said. "I'm always like, make people happy and I can feel happy."

He reads Tony Robbins motivational books on personal development. He also reads real estate investing books, such as "Rich Dad, Poor Dad: What the Rich Teach Their Kids About Money -- That the Poor and Middle Class Do Not!"

The position Custis took in his letter to the dean is not an uncommon viewpoint among student-athletes, though few voice it to school officials. Custis attributes his apparent resentment to youth and now takes a broader view of student-athletes' situations.

"Here, I don't feel that way because Coach Friedgen and the coaches do stress academics," said Custis, who will earn a graphic design degree. "In the NFL, it's a cut-throat business. So you always have to have a backup plan and get your degree, and he focuses on that. I'm sure there are plenty of players all around the country saying, 'Man, they just work us hard and they're not thinking about us.' "

On one occasion, Custis had to make a presentation in Communications 107 class in which he tried to persuade fellow students that student-athletes should be paid.

"You bring the university millions and millions of dollars," Custis said. "There are two sides to that argument. I really can't say [which one is right] because this is a valuable experience that I'm never going to share again once I graduate, so you can't put a price on that."

Terrapins Notes: Defensive end Kevin Eli (hamstring) practiced Monday but remains questionable for Saturday. Omarr Savage and Henry Scott will play at the end position. Tailbacks J.P. Humber and Keon Lattimore and linebacker Eric Lenz are out for Saturday's game because of injuries. Defensive ends Patrick Powell and Jermaine Lemons, both of whom left the team last week, have returned. Russell Bonham will start at right guard over Andrew Crummey. . . . Fewer than 1,000 tickets remain for Maryland's first two games . . . Maryland launched the Junior Terps Club, open to kids in eighth grade and younger. Kids will receive, among other items, a T-shirt, team posters and free admission to all 24 Olympic sports and one football game with a paying adult. The price is $20 for one child or $50 for three or more children.

Ray Custis has gone from marginal redshirt freshman to starting free safety as a senior.