D'Qwell Jackson, Maryland's heralded middle linebacker, came within a hair of intercepting numerous passes in practice this summer against the first-team offense. Afterward, Jackson often approached quarterback Joel Statham and warned, "I almost got one."
To Statham, it signaled good news.
"Well, that's a lot different than the spring game," Statham said. "Maybe I'm growing up a little bit in that aspect."
By all accounts, Statham has matured since April, when his three interceptions, including two to Jackson, in the spring game reopened the quarterback competition in College Park. He has emerged as the team's clear starter who will lead 22nd-ranked Maryland against Northern Illinois tonight at Byrd Stadium.
Coach Ralph Friedgen's latest passing pupil is a quiet 20-year-old from rural Chatsworth, Ga., a sophomore who sat behind Scott McBrien for two years and has yet to throw a touchdown pass in a game.
Statham, who at one time wanted to play for Georgia, represents the latest in a lineage of Maryland quarterbacks, many of whom weren't heavily recruited but found success in college and the NFL. Friedgen noted last week that the school has built quite a quarterback legacy.
Former Maryland quarterbacks Boomer Esiason, Frank Reich, Neil O'Donnell and Scott Zolak all went on to play in the Super Bowl. Shaun Hill and McBrien, Friedgen's first two quarterbacks during his head coaching tenure, now play in the NFL with the Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers, respectively.
Will Statham follow in their success? Teammates believe so. Cornerback Domonique Foxworth, the team's leader, said Statham has solidified himself as the captain of the offense.
Like Statham's learning process, McBrien's development also took time. While he entered his senior season reading defenses better, McBrien still struggled before crowds early in the year, all the while looking relaxed in practice.
While instructing McBrien, Friedgen used to show him the career rankings for ACC quarterbacks to bolster his confidence. McBrien is the most efficient Maryland passer ever and ranks ninth on the ACC's career list.
Offensive coordinator Charlie Taaffe said McBrien considered quitting the team after Maryland dropped to 0-2 last year. But McBrien never lost another game he finished and was named most valuable player of the Gator Bowl.
Statham and coaches know patience is needed to cultivate trust and understanding. Statham used to have an unusual habit of laughing when he made a mistake. "It used to drive me nuts," said Friedgen, who has only recently realized the laughter was a defense mechanism.
Another time, Statham's reaction surprised Friedgen was during spring practice. Statham fumbled and the coach was not happy. And yet Statham immediately said, "I'm getting better."
Friedgen was baffled at the response.
Statham explained: "Last year, I would have lost the ball. This year, I recovered the ball."
Coaches say Statham isn't particularly verbal. Success, especially early on, would give him the confidence that sometimes he does not exude, Friedgen believes. "I think it would really help him as a person if he did well," Friedgen said.
Much is made of Friedgen's complicated offense, which is diagrammed in a four-inch-thick playbook and looks for mismatches while relying on a balanced attack. Statham said it's even more complex than how it is often depicted. One play, he said, could have as many as 15 different formations.
"We're just now breaking the surface with the offense because we're so young," Statham said. "Hopefully, if I get to start for three years, I'll be able to learn most of it before I leave."
While in high school, Statham ran the option 85 percent of the time. As a junior, three players in Statham's backfield rushed for more than 1,000 yards. The offense, as he put it, consisted of, "I knew what plays worked and what plays did not work."
Taaffe said the quarterback depth chart, set after the team's final scrimmage, is merely a starting point and could be adjusted if needed. But Statham is poised to seize the opportunity, especially after "sitting out two seasons after being the man in high school."
It will take a couple of games, Statham said, to fully deal with the speed of the game and to process reads quickly. He acknowledged that he probably won't feel comfortable today until he gets hit a few times. Statham just does not want to be hit too many times, like he was during Maryland's 7-3 loss at Georgia Tech in October.
Statham played because McBrien was knocked out of the game with a concussion, and backup Orlando Evans was suspended from traveling with the team. And yet it proved a seminal moment in Friedgen's eyes.
"The blitzes never fazed Joel," Friedgen said. "He really earned my respect."
Statham has tried to block out the Georgia Tech game and hasn't watched it much on tape.
"I'm definitely more prepared than I was at the Georgia Tech game," Statham said. "It was just part of a growing-up process."