It's Sam Hollenbach's turn to play, and he has a choice to make.

He could try to be the hero and force the 8-ball into the side pocket, a move that might win the game but might also send the cue ball caroming into a corner pocket for a scratch and a loss. Or he could hit pool's equivalent of a layup, nudging the 8-ball closer to its final resting place and handing off the pressure to his opponents.

Hollenbach looks at the table for a brief moment and makes his choice: "I'm gonna play defense here," he says, and makes the safe play.

Whether Hollenbach ended up winning a summertime pool game at teammate Brad Schell's Spencerville home is, perhaps, of little interest to Maryland football fans. (And for the record, he did not.) But whether Hollenbach bothered to make the right decision, even with nothing on the line? Well, little could be more important to the Maryland team that will open its season tomorrow night against Navy.

Because when Ralph Friedgen handed the keys of his high-performance offense to Hollenbach, it was expressly to avoid the sort of spectacular, what-were-they-thinking wrecks that led to last year's 5-6 record: the 16 interceptions, the 29 fumbles, the 30 sacks.

Hollenbach was the cautious choice. He was the middle school drummer whose instructor praised his precision, the high school quarterback who kept his composure while leading a last-minute, game-winning drive against his school's arch rival; the cool-thinking son of a math teacher who studies mechanical engineering when he's not studying a playbook.

"He'd never get overly excited," said high school teammate John Fox, now a tight end at Virginia Military Institute.

"He's definitely as calm as everyone says he is," younger sister Anna confirmed.

"He's so darn quiet and poised," said Jerri Schell, Brad Schell's mother and Hollenbach's mom-away-from-home.

He was, in short, the safe play.

And then a funny thing happened on the way to conservatism: Hollenbach became the star of Maryland's preseason camp. He hooked up on deep patterns with wide receivers. He displayed better than expected speed. In two abbreviated scrimmages he was 24 of 35 for 378 yards, with five touchdowns and no interceptions. Friedgen started the preseason using adjectives such as "decent," "solid" and "methodical" to describe Hollenbach's skills; he ended it by saying Hollenbach had an "extraordinary" camp.

Which is all even harder to believe when you flash back a year to a sophomore quarterback who was frustrated, fourth on the depth chart and thinking of leaving College Park. How did Hollenbach find himself in that predicament?

"I don't really know exactly," he said.

Football in His Blood

Fourth string was a strange place to be for a three-sport star in high school, the football coach's son, "by far the best athlete on campus," as high school teammate Fox said.

Hollenbach had always played sports during a childhood spent in suburban Philadelphia: He was a Little League all-star, someone who "would rather play than eat," said his mother, Libby Hollenbach.

Such passion ran in the family. Jeff Hollenbach had been a star quarterback at Illinois whose skills earned him a tryout with the Pittsburgh Steelers of the mid-'70s. He shared a field with Terry Bradshaw and Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert and Franco Harris.

But a talented teammate at Illinois had once made a confession to Jeff Hollenbach: He had been playing the sport since he was 7 and he was "just sick and tired of football."

To keep that from happening to his son and to guard against injury, Hollenbach told Sam he would have to wait until junior high to put on a football uniform. It wasn't a popular ruling; starting at about age 6, "not every night but often, I'd put him to bed and he'd say 'Dad, when can I play football?' "Jeff Hollenbach said.

But the father's strategy worked, and once Sam started it seemed he couldn't get enough. He constantly asked his father or younger brother Dave to go outside and throw the ball around. They would go out late at night deep into the fall; Sam would throw 100 or 200 balls, Dave's hands would turn bright red.

"Every time I saw him he'd be holding a football," sister Anna said. "Even still, when he comes home from Maryland for a week he'll sit on the couch watching TV and throwing the football in the air. He just cannot put it down."

Hollenbach made a verbal commitment to Maryland before his senior year, then attended four or five Terps games in that ACC championship season. He redshirted his first year at Maryland and was buried on the depth chart his next year, but entering last year's preseason camp he figured to have a shot at the starting job.

Instead, he missed open receivers and never sparkled, and within a matter of weeks he was fourth string, behind Joel Statham, Jordan Steffy and Ryan Mitch. Hollenbach was concerned and confused.

He spent about an hour in Friedgen's office and about 45 minutes with offensive coordinator Charlie Taaffe; both men told him to stick with it, to keep trying. He called his father and they talked for about an hour, "and that's probably one of the first times the word transfer came up," Hollenbach said.

His dad told him that if he were to leave he should do it soon, before school started, so he could get acclimated to new surroundings and a new program. Jeff Hollenbach talked to Friedgen, who said he didn't want Sam to leave but that he would write a glowing recommendation if that's what the family decided to do.

What was the safe play here? Jeff Hollenbach thought it was to depart.

"At that point I looked at the situation and Sam's future," the father said. "I really thought it seemed best to me that Sam make a move."

The son, who like his entire family is deeply religious, prayed about his situation, and decided he wasn't yet ready.

"If I left Maryland and looked back and thought I would have had a chance," he told his dad, "I would regret that for the rest of my life."

Keeping the Faith

Maryland was pounding Duke last September, and the parade of quarterbacks began. Joel Statham started. He gave way to Steffy. Steffy gave way to Mitch.

Hollenbach sat on the bench and sulked. "What am I doing here?" he remembered thinking. Coaches finally called for him to enter the game, mopping up for the mop-ups, and he was too oblivious to notice, missing the first few plays of his first action of the year.

"That was a low point for me," he said, although the team's was yet to come. After the Duke game the Terps began losing, their offense malfunctioning as never before in Friedgen's tenure. Hollenbach was torn between rooting for Statham, who has remained his close friend throughout their three years at Maryland, and hoping he'd get an opportunity to play.

There were better times and there were worse times. Hollenbach said his faith and his prayer sessions -- with an on-campus group called the Navigators and by himself -- helped carry him through the semester.

After games he and his family would go out to Applebee's or take barbeque back to his apartment and watch college football, but they wouldn't talk about his lack of playing time. During the week Hollenbach watched film and went to practice, where he would warm up and do little else. He talked to friends about his situation but kept much of the frustration to himself, driving off campus in his 1996 Dodge Avenger, blasting Linkin Park on the stereo. Other times he would look for a quiet place, once sitting alone on a picnic bench in a park, away from the bustle of campus, for about an hour.

"He doesn't go out and drink, he doesn't drown his sorrows that way," his mother said. "He's quiet. He internalizes."

At night, he would lay in bed, often watching highlights of Maryland's struggles and wondering whether he could do better.

"And maybe that wasn't the best thing to do," he said, "because that would get me thinking about different options, leaving, trying to get somewhere where I could play. Because it didn't seem to be working out."

Things weren't working out for Maryland's other quarterbacks, either. Mitch was suspended for violating team policies. Statham was booed by the home fans. Steffy played through several injuries. After the latter two were battered in Maryland's worst loss, a 55-6 disaster at Virginia Tech, Hollenbach entered the game having had virtually no preparation in practice.

He was 5 for 8, but most importantly, on a day when the other quarterbacks combined for four interceptions, Hollenbach had none.

Friedgen was impressed, and named Hollenbach the starter for the finale against Wake Forest. By the numbers it was another pedestrian performance -- 16 of 27 for 164 yards -- but again, there were no interceptions, and this time there was a win.

"Sam Hollenbach came in and won a very big game for our program," Friedgen said. "He made a couple of big throws, had an 80-yard drive. He made one or two mistakes, but nothing that killed us. And I looked at that tape maybe five more times and saw some of the other things that he did that I thought were pretty darn good."

Now Maryland's boosters wanted to chat with Hollenbach, and television stations wanted to interview his mother, father, sisters and brother. Hollenbach still waited until about Christmas time to make his final decision, but there was no question that the safe play was to come back.

"It was a clear sign, you know, it was a clear sign, I thought, to stay here," Hollenbach said of the season's final days. "I really felt good about how it ended, just that I could get a shot. I wasn't asking the coaches to say that I would get playing time for sure or anything. I just wanted to get a fair shot."

Growing Into the Role

Things have obviously changed since Hollenbach called Friedgen with that decision. He was asked to attend a charity function this year, where a phone was thrust to his ear and he suddenly found himself doing a radio interview. He was elected to the Terrapin Council, the team's leadership forum, which made Jeff Hollenbach as proud as anything his son has accomplished on the football field. His performance this spring, coaches said, has been a complete reversal from last August.

"Like night and day," said Friedgen, who has often said how much he admires Hollenbach's perseverance, his refusal to "take the easy way out."

The quarterback is a popular destination for media members and he performs flawlessly, apologizing for using cliches and answering the same questions over and over with a smile. Teammates say Hollenbach metes out both the ball and his guidance with accuracy and authority.

"He's 100 percent more confident, more composed, more of a verbal leader," said wide receiver Danny Melendez, one of Hollenbach's roommates.

"His swagger is unbelievable right now," receiver Jo Jo Walker said. "The sky's the limit for us with him at the quarterback position."

Hollenbach doesn't think he handled last season perfectly; he thinks he could have been a better fourth-string quarterback, that his heart should have been in it more than it was. He doesn't think he's handled this preseason perfectly; after both scrimmages he almost immediately mentioned the few throws he had missed.

As for whether he'll need to be perfect tomorrow, Hollenbach says no. He'll take what the defense gives him, not try to be the hero.

"If I go out there and try to limit the mistakes, really have fun and play to the potential I believe I have, I think we can be successful," he said. "I'm ready to go. I can't wait."

"Like night and day," is how Ralph Friedgen describes Sam Hollenbach's transformation. Sam Hollenbach said he nearly transferred from Maryland last year because "it didn't seem to be working out." Hollenbach, with pool cue, relaxes with his teammates. "I really felt good about how [last season] ended," he said, prompting his decision to return.