Aug. 18, 1997
Terps Have Mind to Run
By Paul McMullen, SUN STAFF
COLLEGE PARK, Md. - The program was mired in losing, and the new football coach ordered up offensive fireworks in 1992. He got plenty of yardage but few wins, and the decision was made to ditch the passing game in favor of controlling the ball.
It sounds like the growing pains that Maryland experienced in Mark Duffner's five-year tenure, but it's also an accurate description of what Gary Barnett encountered at Northwestern.
The results, of course, were vastly different. Duffner got fired, and Barnett got phone calls about every coaching vacancy. Duffner was never able to get the Terps' offense back on track after he dropped the pass-happy run-and-shoot, but Barnett's decision to shift to a ball-control offense led to two Big Ten titles and a berth in the Rose Bowl for Northwestern.
That success served as a springboard for Ron Vanderlinden and Craig Johnson, the assistant head coach and quarterback coach, respectively, at Northwestern the last five years. Now Vanderlinden is the head coach at Maryland and Johnson is his offensive coordinator, and they believe that what was good for the Wildcats will be good for the Terps.
That would be a multiple offense. It will feature the H-back, a hybrid who combines the best qualities of a fullback and tight end.
"You want to make a comparison?" quarterback Brian Cummings said. "Look at the 49ers when they've got Brent Jones in motion. That's what I see."
The emphasis will be on the run; play-action when you don't; minimizing turnovers and other mistakes; and taking advantage of a defense that is extremely strong up front.
Forget the home run.
Just don't strike out.
"In 1995, the main thrust of our offense at Northwestern was not to get us in trouble," Vanderlinden said. "We were very conservative. We have to learn that it's OK to punt the ball."
Maryland already made the change to a multiple offense last year, but it resulted in a mess with injuries to Cummings and the offensive line. Plus, the players on hand had been recruited with the run-and-shoot in mind. A team that four years earlier was fourth in the nation in total offense was limited to one touchdown or none in seven games.
"This offense has gone through an identity crisis," Johnson said. "When I was at Northwestern, these guys had 5,000-yard seasons and everyone in the country heard about what Maryland was doing.
"They moved the ball up and down the field, but they weren't winning for whatever reason. We went through something similar at Northwestern. My first couple of years there, we were second in passing in the Big Ten, but we didn't win a lot."
"If you want to win in Ann Arbor and Columbus and Happy Valley in November, you had better be able to run the ball.
"We studied our history, and learned that almost every tremendous rushing team in the Big Ten had won," Johnson said. "The good passing teams had not won. We got a lot of yardage, but we couldn't run, especially down at the goal line. We had too many turnovers, didn't control the ball. That hurts your defense.
"What's nice about this offense is that it's flexible. The same formations we threw out of in 1992 and '93, we ran out of the last two years."
Northwestern was inexperienced at the skill positions when it ruled the Big Ten two years ago. When the Wildcats opened 1995 with a win over Notre Dame, it marked the first start for the wide receivers and the H-back, the second start for tailback Darnell Autry and the fourth for quarterback Steve Schnur.
Bruce James is the only wide receiver who's ever started for Maryland. Peter Timmins, the H-back, began spring practice as a linebacker, but Cummings said "he might have the best hands on the team."
Even though everyone who's reached their third year in the program was recruited for the run-and-shoot, Johnson said "Mark [Duffner] did not leave us with a bare cupboard."
Cummings' record as a starter is over .500, and senior Buddy Rodgers heads a group of tailbacks who have underachieved. Timmins doesn't have to unlearn any bad habits, and the changes in philosophy and execution will be most drastic for the quarterback and the offensive line.
Cummings began his sophomore season with the myriad possibilities of the run-and-shoot, ended it in the I-formation and went multiple last year. Now the quarterbacks are trying to become comfortable with a system in which they'll call two plays in the huddle, and then run the one best suited to beat the defensive scheme they're faced with.
Call it "Check with me."
The quarterbacks said it isn't any less complex than what they did last year, but senior tackle Darryl Gilliam said it is considerably simpler than what he had to deal with in the run-and-shoot.
"There were two or three different code words for the play," Gilliam said. "They were two or three different code words for the snap count, and two or three for audibles. Once you got those down, you had it beat."
According to Johnson, the Terps don't have to worry so much about the snap count as about some psyches that were about to snap last year.
"This is a whole different mind-set from the run-and-shoot," Johnson said. "The linemen are no longer spending most of the time with their weight back. They'll be going forward at least half the time. We'll preach it, and teach it. We're going to be physical, play smart and not beat ourselves."