Sixteen Maryland freshmen played in last week's victory against Temple. Not one of them can fully understand senior center Kyle Schmitt's one-word description of the atmosphere at Mountaineer Field: mayhem.
The young players, 36 of whom have four years of eligibility, can't grasp when defensive coordinator Gary Blackney says West Virginia's atmosphere is "as tough as I've ever coached in."
In its first litmus test of 2004, 21st-ranked Maryland will meet seventh-ranked West Virginia today at noon in a game televised nationally on ESPN2. Last year's class of 21 Maryland seniors is gone, replaced by a small yet more vocal group of players who, today more than ever, need to provide steadfast leadership.
"I really have to rely on them," Maryland Coach Ralph Friedgen said. "They've been here before, and a lot of these guys haven't."
Throughout the practice week, Friedgen piped John Denver's soothing "Take Me Home, Country Roads" through the sound system as players stretched. A more appropriate selection might have been Guns N' Roses' thunderous "Welcome to the Jungle."
"There is no way to really get it across to young players until they are there," senior cornerback Domonique Foxworth said. "Sometimes the more you talk about it, the more nervous they get. It's our job to take the pressure off of them so they can settle while we are taking care of business."
Sometime today, when trouble arises, Maryland (2-0) will turn to Schmitt, Foxworth, left guard C.J. Brooks or left tackle Stephon Heyer, someone to galvanize the team with words as much as actions. The Terps' vocal leadership comes regardless of class and from numerous positions.
Consider the third quarter of the season opener against Northern Illinois: Behind a quarterback making his collegiate debut, the Huskies had just driven down the field for a touchdown. On the sideline, Maryland's D'Qwell Jackson, a junior middle linebacker, blasted the defense with an impassioned, expletive-laced outburst. The team responded.
Place kicker Nick Novak also has strived to be more vocal. The senior attended last week's Washington Redskins game and eyed kicker John Hall throughout, noticing how confident and vocal Hall was on the sideline. "Not your stereotypical characteristics of a kicker," Novak said.
Brooks described the emergence of new leadership as "a coming of age" and called it "magnificent." Added Schmitt: "We're not afraid to call guys out when we're not seeing that attitude we need to win. There is a little more of that."
Leadership, of course, comes in many forms, and Foxworth, at 5 feet 11, 178 pounds, acknowledged he "walks a fine line" when chiding a defensive lineman who weighs well more than 250 pounds. But, by all accounts, teammates respect Foxworth because he speaks his mind on and off the field and bolsters words with performance. A self-described natural leader, Foxworth uses varying techniques for different personalities.
"Some people, you can yell all day, and they won't hear a thing," Foxworth said. "Some people, you can raise your voice, and it will get their attention. Others, if you get them man-to-man, face-to-face, and really talk to them, they'll respond better to that than if you got them on the field, yell at them and maybe embarrass them."
Brooks said he needed to work on being more of a vocal leader once he recognized it as a team need. Schmitt, meantime, said he learned his approach from previous Maryland offensive linemen who had nurtured Schmitt with a blend of positive reinforcement and criticism.
Throughout the summer, Schmitt sidled up to young linemen in the Gossett Team House cafeteria. He first praised a specific act, then sprinkled in criticism, aware that each word could affect a player's confidence.
"You have a coaching staff to get down on them," Schmitt said. "So they don't need older guys jumping them and everyone beating on them. But sometimes the message is a little clearer when it comes from a player. From the coaches, you kind of hear it day in and day out. When an older teammate jumps you, maybe it means more because you know how much they want it."
Jackson agreed, adding that he is more patient with freshmen than with older players, who should not commit mental errors. That said, Jackson has made clear to young players the importance of their road debut today before a rabid crowd and against a 2-0 West Virginia team.
"Your first impression lasts forever," Jackson said. "No matter if you make a good play or a bad play, you'll remember it forever."
And, after all, Maryland's goal today is not to massage players' psyches, but rather to keep its undefeated record intact entering Atlantic Coast Conference play and to defeat West Virginia for a fifth straight time.
"Sometimes you might hurt someone's feelings," Schmitt said. "But I want to win on Saturday, so that's how it's got to be. I learned from those guys who played in front of me, and I helped pass it down to the guys below me. I think that's what really makes a program."
Terps Note: Wide receiver Dan Melendez (hamstring) is not expected to play.