CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- There's a nasty scab running down Raphael Wall's nose. Is it a badge of honor for the Maryland cornerback, something that would do a football macho man proud?
"People think it's football-related, but actually, I got hit by a door in my dorm room," Wall said. "I wish I could say I hit somebody."
That sentiment could have been Wall's motto for 1993, when he was the strong safety on a unit that stacked down, statistically, as the most porous defense in the history of Division I-A football. Wall was often out of position and his tackling was unsure, and it was a season he would just as soon forget.
Wall, the right cornerback, and the rest of the defense have shown steady improvement, allowing mediocre offenses a single touchdown in Maryland's last three games, but they'll get a more meaningful test of their progress today against No. 15 North Carolina.
For the second straight year, the Atlantic Coast Conference game will be played at Kenan Stadium, and it was in the second game of 1993 that the Terps discovered they were in serious trouble when they didn't have the ball. North Carolina rolled up a school-record 714 yards, 355 coming on six plays, as the Tar Heels big-played Maryland into submission.
With Jason Stanicek at quarterback and Curt and Leon Johnson putting the hurt on people at tailback, North Carolina (4-1, 1-1) still has the best running game in the ACC, but Wall said Maryland (2-3, 1-3) is better prepared for the Tar Heels.
"People went into games last year basically not knowing how to defend," Wall said. "Me, for instance, I'd go into games at safety not understanding how to read the quarterback and his intentions, how to get where I needed to be. I didn't have a thorough understanding of the position."
Playing defense has been an adjustment for Wall, who expected to gain yards for the Terps, not deny them. He came out of Wilde Lake High in Columbia as the top rusher in state prep history with 5,095 yards, but he made a few token appearances as a true freshman, alternated between offense and defense as a sophomore, and spent all of last season at strong safety.
This season brought more change, as Wall asked Kevin Coyle, Maryland's first-year secondary coach and defensive coordinator, if he could switch to cornerback.
"People get better with experience, but I just feel I'm better suited to play cornerback," said Wall, a 21-year-old criminal justice major. "The safety has to be one of the toughest guys out there, and I believe I am, but at corner I look a lot tougher than I was at safety."
Despite having spring practice disrupted by shoulder surgery for the second straight year, Wall immersed himself in his new role. He's still after his first college interception, but opposing offenses haven't enjoyed the carte blanche they had throwing deep against the Terps last year. He has 16 tackles, and would get votes for Maryland's most improved player.
"I wasn't here last year, but having watched film and talked with the other coaches, you can see that Raphael's improvement has been significant," Coyle said. "He studies film as hard as anyone in the program. Tackling is not an easy skill, and Raphael has really gotten better there. He's played consistently in every game."
Enough to get noticed by North Carolina coach Mack Brown, whose pre-game propaganda touched on the Terps' defensive improvement in general, and two players in particular.
"The Maryland defense is playing much better," Brown said. "The two cornerbacks [Wall and A. J. Johnson] are really good."