Tate was 18 at the time and seemed even younger. He didn't even own his own alarm clock before arriving at the dormitory suite he shared with five other Terps, including current Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith. He had always relied on his mother to wake him up.

Tate was placed in a program — then called the Intensive Learning Program — designed to get athletes up to speed academically. Because of their special skills — in Tate's case, football — many in ILP were admitted to Maryland without the same academic credentials as other students.

Tate struggled at times with his studies, often falling asleep in his dorm with the light on and his schoolwork spread out in front of him.

Considering all the hours football players put in — for practices, games, weightlifting, team meetings — Tate believes athletes should receive some sort of stipend beyond their scholarship. "I just think about how much the NCAA is making in general," he says.

On the field, Tate was developing as his coaches hoped. By his junior season, when he was selected as an All-Atlantic Coast Conference safety, he was clearly rattling opposing offenses. Before the snap, he would often creep from his safety position to the edge of the line and stare menacingly at the quarterback. He was big and aggressive enough to blitz effectively, but mobile enough to drop back into coverage.

In the final minute of Maryland's opening game in 2010, Tate slammed into Ricky Dobbs before the Navy quarterback could cross the goal line on fourth-and-1. Tate, not usually animated in his celebrations, emerged from the pile of players pumping his fist, and the Terps ran out the clock on a 17-14 victory at M&T Bank Stadium.

By season's end, Tate was showing up in pundits' mock drafts as a first- or second-round pick.

"A one-year starter at free safety, Tate has the ability to start at the NFL level," said a report on Tate by New Era, an independent scouting service. "Very aggressive in coming up to make a tackle. Reminds of Troy Polamalu in this regard."

Many of his teammates assumed Tate would declare for that April's draft. They didn't know he was being pulled — as if by a gang of tacklers — in several different directions.

The decision

Tate's decision whether to enter the draft or return to school to pursue his degree and burnish his football credentials was already complicated enough. But then came the NFL lockout, raising the possibility that there would be no NFL season.

If he were drafted, Tate could be stuck indefinitely without football or a contract. As long as the lockout continued, teams were not permitted to sign free agents. If Tate went undrafted, the free agent route would not be available.

Prior to 2011, Tate had always felt lucky. His mother and father were no longer together, but he remained close to his dad, who lived nearby. His family didn't have lots of money, but it seemed like enough. His scholarship paid for most of his needs. Every few weeks, his mother — who works with youths at a recreation center — would deposit $20 into his bank account.

But the lockout was the most unwelcome of wild cards. It ultimately led Tate to return to Maryland, where — unbeknownst to him — two more position changes and a game-changing injury awaited.

"I knew if I came back, I was guaranteed a football season," he says. "The NFL, I figured, wasn't going anywhere."

But nothing is guaranteed in football.

Early in the 2011 season, the cartilage in Tate's right knee was beginning to break away. Loose parts were floating around the joint, causing the knee to swell. Once a week, a syringe would be inserted to drain out fluid.

No one knows for sure what caused the injury, but Tate — a team captain switched to a linebacker-safety hybrid position before the season by new coach Randy Edsall — suspects it began with a block to the knee during a win over Towson in the season's fourth game.

A month later, he was in a Baltimore hospital receiving a cartilage transplant.

"We said a prayer before he went under, and we said a prayer in the waiting room, and we said a prayer while he was still in surgery," his mother says. "We just kept praying."