Over the past three decades, Maryland Coach Ralph Friedgen and offensive coordinator Charlie Taaffe have put together successful quarterbacks with whatever parts they've found at stops ranging from the ACC to the NFL, from Division I-AA to the Canadian Football League.
Five years ago, Friedgen and Taaffe intersected in College Park, and notwithstanding last season's offensive doldrums, their quarterback assembly line is humming again.
The newest model, junior Sam Hollenbach, was supposed to be one of Maryland's biggest question marks this season. Instead, the former fourth-stringer enters tonight's game against No. 3 Virginia Tech as the ACC's leader in total offense and the league's second-most efficient passer, behind only the Hokies' Marcus Vick.
"That would be Friedgen and Taaffe at their best," said Tracy Ham, who played under Taaffe with the CFL's Montreal Alouettes.
In interviews with a half-dozen quarterbacks who have played for one or both coaches, the same themes were repeated again and again. Success resulted not from physical attributes but from an understanding of defensive coverages and offensive responses. It was measured not in the sizzling deep throw but in the correct read, in getting the offense into advantageous matchups. Pregame preparation was incessant and at times overwhelming, but the knowledge paid dividends on the field.
"I'll tell you one thing: I learned more football from those two guys than I learned in my whole career," said former Maryland quarterback Scott McBrien, who was 21-6 as a starter. "If I didn't play under those two coaches, I don't know if I would have ever had the successful career that I had."
The coaches' biggest strength, according to McBrien and the other former quarterbacks, is their insistence that their signal-callers understand opposing defenses and how to dissect them, allowing the quarterbacks to internalize the game plan and to modify the plays that come into the huddle.
In film study before the Gator Bowl following the 2003 season, for example, Taaffe would pause the action, point to West Virginia's defense and demand that McBrien predict what would happen next. When New Year's Day finally arrived, the quarterback felt like he was taking an exam while armed with something mightier than a No. 2 pencil.
"To make it simple, they gave me all the answers to the test," McBrien said this week. "You know you have every answer; you know you're going to get a good grade. That's exactly what it feels like on game day."
McBrien ended his Maryland career that afternoon by passing for a personal-best 381 yards as the Terps rolled to a 41-7 win; he left College Park as the most efficient quarterback in Maryland history.
And the tenets he described have held true in different decades and in vastly different situations. Jack Douglas, for example, started for four years under Taaffe at The Citadel, almost never passing the ball while leading one of the best rushing offenses in Division I-AA. But his recollections were nearly identical to McBrien's.
"You were well-prepared; that's the biggest thing," said Douglas, who led the Bulldogs to wins over Arkansas and South Carolina while Taaffe was his head coach and finished his career as the most successful running quarterback in I-AA history. Taaffe "must have been a boy scout or something. You wouldn't see a situation in a game that you didn't see in practice at least once or twice. Actually, practice was harder than the games; my second or third start, I came to that realization. When you came to the game, it was easy. When you saw how they were lining up on Saturday, you said, 'Man, I've seen this before.' That was the beauty of what he was able to do."
The foundation was thus built away from the football field, during seemingly endless film sessions, the former quarterbacks said.
"Shoot, hours and hours, every day going into game week, even Sunday after the game," McBrien said.
"At least two to three hours of film study before we even started practice," said Anthony Calvillo, another Alouettes quarterback who played under Taaffe. "He was always questioning me, what am I looking for on pretty much every route. Mentally he was putting me through a game before I even entered a game."
Such advance work is especially important in Friedgen's pro-style offense, in which the quarterback must be able to change virtually any call based on a defensive alignment.
"We have a system that everybody says is so complex," Friedgen said. "Yeah, maybe it's a little more difficult to have answers for everything, but we do have the answers. So they have to know how to read coverage and read defenses. Some of these coaches, quite frankly, don't bother teaching that; they just try to make it as simple as possible for the kids."
The importance of mental preparation for both Friedgen and Taaffe has thus meant that the best quarterback wasn't always synonymous with the most athletic quarterback. Douglas, for example, said he was never the most physically gifted quarterback at The Citadel.
"Same thing when I was" at Maryland, said Shaun Hill, who led Friedgen's first Maryland team to an ACC championship. "There were quarterbacks who could throw the ball harder and further and run faster. You have to be disciplined; you have to be willing to study every week. And if you're willing to do that, then you've got a chance there."
Former players also praised the coaches for their flexibility, which allowed Taaffe to jump from The Citadel's running game into the Alouettes' passing game, and which allowed Friedgen to subtly mold his offense for both the mobile McBrien and the more upright Hollenbach.
"All I know is when Ralph and Bobby Ross and those guys came to Maryland, guys like me, Frank Reich, Stan Gelbaugh all of the sudden said, 'Wow, this offense is taking advantage of our skills, this is no longer where we're round pegs stuck in square holes,' " said Boomer Esiason, who starred at Maryland with Friedgen as his offensive coordinator before going on to a successful NFL career. "To me, one of the ways you get the most out of your players is you make sure you build around your strengths and you're not stubborn as a coach. Ralph and Charlie deserve a lot of credit for finding [Hollenbach] and building around his strengths."
And thus, the latest project. Hollenbach's first collegiate chance came during last year's blowout loss to the Hokies; his biggest test will come tonight against the Hokies' defense, which is ranked second in the country. Friedgen admitted he doesn't know how Hollenbach will perform tonight; the quarterback has seven interceptions through six games and the Hokies have a reputation for forcing turnovers. But if the Terps are to have any chance Hollenbach will have to extend the string of surprisingly strong performances he has delivered thus far.
There have been some physical changes since his arrival in College Park; Taaffe helped alter Hollenbach's release, moving his throwing arm farther away from his head, which improved the quarterback's release time, his accuracy and his consistency.
But much more important has been Hollenbach's expanding understanding of the offense, which is why Friedgen was perhaps never more complimentary than after Maryland's win over Virginia. Facing a similar read that led to an early interception, Hollenbach later threw a touchdown to an open receiver.
"The thing he's doing now is he's seeing coverage," Friedgen, beaming, said after that game. "He played within the system and took what it gave him."
Hollenbach -- a mechanical engineering major who studied for both the Hokies and for three linear algebra tests during the bye week -- is less physically gifted than last year's starter, Joel Statham, but he spends hours by himself in the film room. McBrien said Hollenbach would ask questions about the offense that he hadn't even considered, while coaches said he readily acknowledges his mental mistakes and rarely makes the same error twice.
"The biggest change in Sam is the mental part," Taaffe said. "He's more disciplined in our system; his focus is much better. I think all that has transferred into his completion percentage."
Even on poor days in practice Hollenbach completes better than 60 percent of his throws; in one recent session he completed 78 percent, Friedgen said. In games, he's completing better than 65 percent of his passes, a number that puts him in the top 20 nationally, along with better-known stars such as Vick, Michigan State's Drew Stanton and Texas's Vince Young.
Such a leap from a quarterback who once struggled to connect with receivers is hardly unprecedented. In his first two ACC games under Friedgen and Taaffe, Hill completed 53 percent of his passes and had an NCAA passer rating of 111. By his last two ACC games -- which came against opponents that both finished with winning records -- Hill's completion percentage jumped to 63 percent, and his passer rating was 147.
"It's not so much how strong an arm; it's going to the right place and not making mistakes, and Ralph gets the guys to do that," said Bobby Beathard, who was the San Diego Chargers' general manager when Friedgen was the team's offensive coordinator. "Ralph can take any quarterback who's smart and willing to spend the time working at it, he can take him to that higher level where they have a chance to succeed."