During the fourth quarter of last Saturday's game at Georgia Tech, Maryland linebacker Mario Rowson looked around him and noticed that he was not the only freshman on the field for the Terps. Far from it.
"It was like, 'Dang we've got five freshmen out here. We're doing it,'" Rowson recalled Wednesday, sitting in the auditorium at the Gossett Team House. "They got some good stuff out of all of us. It felt good."
Though the Terps wound up losing, 21-16, to the then 13th-ranked Yellow Jackets at Grant Field, the play of the five freshmen — four of whom started — has been a bright spot for a team in the midst of what now has the markings of a difficult transition season.
"They did well last week. We expect them to keep getting better," first-year Maryland coach Randy Edsall said during Wednesday's ACC teleconference. "Clemson presents a different challenge than Georgia Tech. I've been pleased with the way they've practiced and the way they've gone about their business."
Edsall won't say how many of the freshmen will start again for Maryland (2-3, 1-1 in the ACC) this Saturday when eighth-ranked Clemson (6-0, 3-0) visits Byrd Stadium for a 7 p.m. game, but unless linebackers Kenny Tate and Demetrius Hartsfield recover from the injuries that have sidelined them last week, there could be as many as five freshmen starting.
"I don't think I've had this many young guys, but my whole philosophy is whoever the best guy is is going to play," said Edsall, whose ACC-high 22 freshmen makes up more than a quarter of the roster. "Due to some injuries, due to the fact that some of these young men are the best at their position, we're playing them."
Rowson, who converted from cornerback to linebacker during spring practice, started against Georgia Tech in place of Tate. Titus Till took over at safety when Matt Robinson suffered a season-ending shoulder injury last month. Keith Bowers replaced Isaiah Ross on the defensive line when Ross got hurt against Miami. Lorne Goree has twice replaced Darin Drakeford at linebacker and wound up making an interception against Towson. Alex Twine came when Hartsfield went down in the third quarter with a leg injury. Twine is a 17-year-old true freshman. Bowers is also a true freshman. The others are redshirt freshmen.
"We had all those injuries in the Georgia Tech game and people still stepped up," Bowers said. "You get confidences in that knowing that for the next four years I have someone I can rely on."
There are, of course, growing pains along the way.
Twine recalled how Georgia Tech went after him the moment he replaced Hartsfield. The Yellow Jackets scored on the first play after Hartfield was helped off.
"They ended up scoring on the first play and after that they kind of went after me the whole game," Twine said. "After that touchdown, I thought I was in position to make plays and on a couple of plays I thought I helped my team get in a position to score."
Twine gets kidded about his age, but the joking stops the moment the Terps go out to play.
"Joe Vellano and some of the other guys on the team told me I wasn't a little boy anymore, that you got to start playing, you can't be afraid," Twine said. "You've got to step up. They expect the same from me at that position from anyone else at that position. I definitely have to step up and be more of a factor on defense."
Rowson said he "wouldn't be surprised if we beat some of these top teams," but understands that losing could be part of the equation this year,
"If we do lose games, we've got to get some experience," Rowson said.
Said Bowers, "I love the experience, but I love winning. You can't be a college athlete and not want to win. Every week, you never go into a game expecting to lose. You try to prepare the same way every week."
Edsall is not conceding the season — at least not publicly — but he said that playing so many freshmen "is going to bode well because a lot of these young kids are getting a lot of experience in their first year and they're still going to have three more years of elibility."
Of all the freshmen who are playing regularly, Twine still seems a bit shocked at the transition. He didn't play his sophomore year at Quince Orchard High in Montgomery County because of poor grades, and didn't start regularly until he was a senior.
Now, six games into his freshman year, he might get his first start Saturday. He won't turn 18 until December.
"It's kind of weird," he said. "It doesn't really affect me on the field. It's kind of like crazy that I'm playing with a bunch of older guys. Sometimes I get that thought, sometimes I feel like I'm just blessed to be here."