Trey Covington was skeptical. Sure, Jared Gaither looked like a football player, but to come out for the Eleanor Roosevelt team as a senior, with virtually no organized football experience? It seemed like a stretch.
So Covington watched with interest on the first day of practice two years ago, when coaches immediately matched Gaither up against one of the Raiders' strongest linebackers in a tackling drill.
"Jared grabbed him by the head and threw him, and we all thought he was dead," said Covington, now Gaither's teammate at Maryland. "And we said, 'Well, that'll do.' "
By the end of his first and only high school season, Gaither decided he wanted to be a football player, committing to the Terps after previously giving an oral commitment to the South Carolina basketball team. By the time he arrived in College Park this summer -- after qualifying academically at Hargrave Military Academy last fall -- Gaither was penciled in as Stephon Heyer's successor at left tackle. And with Heyer out for the year because of a knee injury and his replacement, Derek Miller, moving back to tight end this week, the 6-foot-9, 330-pound freshman will start Saturday's crucial game at Wake Forest just 25 months after that first high school practice.
"I was looking forward to learning a year and getting ready for my sophomore year," Gaither said. "Coach obviously sees something. He believes in me, so we'll fly with that."
Sophomore tackle Scott Burley figured to challenge for the right tackle job until he was slowed by offseason back surgery; he's now at 90 percent of his former condition, Coach Ralph Friedgen said, and for now will back up Gaither at left tackle. And while coaches said this week's personnel shuffle is not an ideal solution and might not be permanent, they think the switches could help alleviate several problems on a struggling offensive line.
The Terps had hoped to utilize more two tight end sets featuring Miller and starter Vernon Davis this year, but those plans were scaled back when Miller became an offensive lineman. Miller's return to tight end also will make it easier to give breathers to Davis, the team's most dangerous playmaker. And using both tight ends in short-yardage situations could bolster what has been one of Maryland's biggest failings. In their last two games -- both home losses -- the Terps have had 17 offensive plays in which they needed to gain one or two yards. Only five have succeeded.
"I feel like I'm pushing a Mack truck when I'm playing tackle every single play," Miller said. "With myself and the two tackles, it's like having three tackles on the field at one time."
No true freshman has started on Maryland's offense this early in a season under Friedgen, and coaches and teammates said Gaither is still raw, but his uncommon foot speed, athleticism and sheer size can often mask technical deficiencies. His mastery of the playbook is incomplete, but Miller will frequently line up next to him and has offered to make blocking calls for both positions.
"Is he going to make young mistakes? Probably," offensive coordinator Charlie Taaffe said. "The kid is immensely talented and he's going to be a dominant player. It's just every snap for him is a new learning experience."
That's largely because as Gaither grew, he shot past size restrictions in youth football leagues. Unable to play that sport, he turned to basketball, because "that was my way to play sports, period."
As he passed through middle and high school he continued to grow, reaching his mother Joyce Suggs, who is about 6-feet tall, and then his 6-foot-8 older brother Jamar, who played basketball for West Virginia and Division II Fairmont State.
"He was just literally expanding each and every day," Suggs said.
Gaither tempted Eleanor Roosevelt football coach Rick Houchens for years, promising that he would "come over and take over his football team," and when he finally showed up his senior year he was the first player or coach at the first day of practice, arriving at 6 a.m. His teammates needed to show Gaither how to put on his equipment and his coaches needed to explain the three-point stance, and yet Gaither was soon chasing down quarterbacks as a defensive tackle.
Midway through the season he also began playing tight end; in one of his first games on offense he caught a short pass and turned it into a 51-yard touchdown, outrunning defensive backs to the end zone.
"It amazed everybody -- it wasn't that this big guy caught the ball, it was how quick he could run," Eleanor Roosevelt Coach Rick Houchens said. "I said 'Man, this kid is a freak of nature.' "
Gaither's physical attributes have continued to captivate; visitors to Maryland's practices often ask who No. 78 is, and his Maryland teammates laugh when asked about his size.
"He's humongous, makes me look like a little baby out there," 292-pound guard Donnie Woods said.
"You cannot see around him, you can't move him," Covington said. "I won't see a tackle this year that's going to be as big, as strong and as athletic as Jared."
"Physically, he's God's gift," Miller said.
Gaither said he doesn't bother thinking about whether his football skills would be further advanced if he had tried the sport earlier.
"My heart's into the football game, my heart's into playing and doing the best I can so it's nothing that really can give me a disadvantage," he said. "I think everything happens for a reason. And now I'm the starting left tackle."