COLLEGE PARK — COLLEGE PARK -- Neil O'Donnell, the former University of Maryland quarterback now with the Pittsburgh Steelers, strode across the lounge to a table at which current Terps quarterback Jimmy Sandwisch, a former walk-on, was sitting.
"This is now the man," said O'Donnell, pointing to Sandwisch, who smiled and blushed. It has almost become a Maryland tradition that the No. 2 quarterback becomes No. 1 once the starter leaves or fails.
Frank Reich took over after Boomer Esiason left in 1983. Stan Gelbaugh inherited the job from Reich in 1985, followed by Dan Henning in 1986. An ineffective Henning was replaced by O'Donnell in fall 1987, and he eventually turned over the spot to Scott Zolak last season.
Now that Zolak will be graduating, Sandwisch, Zolak's understudy last season, would seem to be the logical replacement.
Or is he? Maryland has signed four highly rated quarterbacks to letters of intent and will have as many as six when preseason camp opens in August.
Sandwisch has gotten the message.
"I've heard about all of these new quarterbacks about a hundred times already," said the junior from Great Mills High. "I know there are a lot of people out there doubting me, and they should, because I haven't been involved in a lot of game situations. I understand the competitive nature of this game.
"But I have a lot of faith in my ability, and some of my teammates are giving me confidence," said Sandwisch. "Competition will be great in the spring. I look at this situation the same way Zolak looked at it a year ago. He hadn't played much, but he eventually proved that he could. I can see myself starting next season."
There are, however, a lot of differences between Sandwisch and Zolak and most of the other former Terps quarterbacks. Zolak played more often in his three seasons as a backup than Sandwisch did.
Plus, O'Donnell, Esiason and Zolak came to Maryland with solid reputations and cannon-like arms. All three stand about 6 feet 4, and all three are built like tight ends.
Sandwisch, 6-3 and 194 pounds, looks as if he has missed a few meals. He didn't even earn a scholarship until last season, spending most the four previous years either on the scout team or holding for extra points.
"Overall, I've enjoyed my career here, and I was never intimidated by any of the other quarterbacks," he said. "And what a group to learn from. I just tried to get better each day. Now, it's my chance to show what I can do."
In four seasons, Sandwisch has thrown a total of 24 passes. Last season, he completed 12 of 22 for 137 yards and one of his passes was intercepted. But, for one fleeting quarter in the 1990 season, he was spectacular. He completed seven of eight passes against Michigan in the fourth period for 65 yards, a stint that impressed Maryland coach Joe Krivak.
"Every time he has played, he has done well in that limited time," said Krivak. "Jimmy is a mobile youngster and very competitive. He's been around for a while, so he understands the competitiveness. He's got an advantage over the others in that he knows the system. We're going to get four kids as much work as they can during the spring and leave the door open for the No. 1 position. This is a good opportunity for him."
Sandwisch, though, still seems to be going against stacked odds. One of the candidates is John Kaleo, who threw for 2,963 yards and 32 touchdowns last season for Montgomery-Rockville Junior College and was named the JuCo Player of the Year.
Another is Greg Lister, from Holy Spirit High and Admiral Faragut Academy in New Jersey. Lister directed a run-and-shoot offense at Holy Sprit, completing 87 of 150 passes for 1,436 yards. The third is redshirt freshman Tony Scarpino.
Then, when August arrives, Maryland will add two hotshot recruits in Tom Marchese and Scott Milanovich, rated as the two best high school quarterbacks in Pennsylvania and among the best on the East Coast.
"Jimmy throws a great ball," said Maryland linebacker Scott Whittier. "I've seen the other guys, and none of them are great physical specimens. Maryland is going to need a scrappy little quarterback. If Jimmy gets that strong confidence in himself, just says, 'Forget the other bull' and 'I'm going to get off,' then he'll get the job done."
Sandwisch doesn't lack confidence. Because of an outstanding baseball career (he batted .520 as a shortstop at Great Mills), he waited for evaluations from pro scouts and delayed too long to take his SAT, which probably cost him a scholarship at some other university.
But it didn't stop him from coming to Maryland.
"I just thought I could play major-college football and I wanted to play for Maryland," he said. "I didn't want to play for a Division III school and not have a chance to go pro."
Scout team was far away from the pro ranks, too, but Krivak likes to tell a story about Sandwisch's dedication.
"Two springs ago, he had a class that ran into spring practice," said Krivak recently. "So, for about 20 minutes, he would come outside in full gear, take snaps and run with special teams, then run inside and go back to class. This was a guy that wasn't even on scholarship yet."
O'Donnell says dedication and hard work give Sandwisch has the edge.
"He is going to be the man," said O'Donnell. "He has earned his chance with all the stuff he has put up with over the years. He's got a good ball, runs well and is an athlete. He was always smart and picked up on things well."
Maryland quarterback candidates
John Kaleo: 6-1, 180, Montgomery-Rockville Junior College. Completed 61 percent of his passes last season for 2,963 yards and 32 touchdowns. Nine passes intercepted in 304 attempts.
* Greg Lister: 6-3, 225, Holy Spirit High School and Admiral Farragut Academy in New Jersey. Completed 87 of 150 passes for 1,436 yards and 10 touchdowns in his senior year at Holy Sprit High. Ran the ball 44 times for 330 yards.
* Tom Marchese: 6-3, 195, Dunmore (Pa.) High. Threw for 3,648 yards and 32 touchdowns in career. Two intercepted in 118 attempts last season.
* Scott Milanovich: 6-3, 220, from Butler High, completed 114 of 226 passes for 1,520 yards last season. Had 19 touchdown passes and 7 passes intercepted.
* Jimmy Sandwisch: 6-3, 194, junior, Great Mills High. Has completed 12 of 24 passes for 137 yards and 2 interceptions during his career at Maryland. Completed 7 of 8 for 65 yards against Michigan.
* Tony Scarpino: 6-3, 210, freshman, Monroeville, Pa. Redshirted last season.