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Duffner opts for polish, but has spit-shine team


COLLEGE PARK -- Me? I would have let Brian Cummings start at quarterback against Georgia Tech tomorrow night.

Everyone tells me that I'm wrong, that Scott Milanovich is clearly the superior talent, that Maryland coach Mark Duffner made the right choice yesterday.

Hmm. Let me see if I've got this right. Cummings has the Terps at 4-0 for the first time since Jimmy Carter was president, he is ranked 18th in the country in passing efficiency, he is coming off a 299-yard, two-touchdown passing performance -- and it is "the right choice" for him to lose his job?

Sorry. Count me among the skeptical.

I understand that Milanovich is more experienced, more accomplished, a better passer. I understand that there are any number of safe, rational reasons for choosing him.

I also understand that the Terps might win most of their games this season regardless of who plays quarterback, thanks to their big-play defense, solid kicking game and multitude of offensive weapons.

But I would have stuck with Cummings. Don't ask me to quantify it. People around here have waited for years for the Terps to do this, to do anything other than lie down and roll over on a football field, and I don't see where it's a great idea to start fiddling around with what is working.

Clearly, the Terps have one of those "good chemistry" things going. Anyone who has sat in the stands at Byrd Stadium understands. The Terps have that collective quality that you occasionally see in all sports, that you can't define except that you know it when you see it. The pieces fit. The blend of talents and personalities is just right.

These Terps are young, showing more passion and confidence every week, smacking the crud out of people, and beginning to understand they're good.

And Cummings is their man.

Opting to use another quarterback, Duffner risks souring that chemistry and blowing that advantage.

This is a team of underclassmen. Half of the starters are redshirt sophomores and true juniors who arrived on campus two years ago, with Cummings. Milanovich might as well be their dad. He is cocky, somewhat aloof, not really one of the guys. Cummings is the emerging centerpiece of this group, the beating heart.

Georgia Tech coach George O'Leary was wrong when he said the other day that this was Milanovich's team. Had Duffner let the players vote on who gets to start tomorrow night, Cummings would have won.

Milanovich is a major-league talent, no doubt about that, but I love the intangible qualities Cummings brings to the table. I love that his teammates love to play beside him. I love that he comes right back after a bad play and makes a good one. I love that he can beat you passing and running.

And I really love that, unlike Milanovich, he isn't worried about what the pro scouts think of him.

Picking Milanovich was the rational decision, the sensible decision, the decision that emphasized talent instead of intangibles. But, having just watched (and barely survived) the Orioles' 1995 season, I'm a little less sure about the invincibility of talent.

The Orioles had tons of talent this season, pitchers who had won 20 games elsewhere, hitters who had batted .300 elsewhere, and they still stunk. They were rotten on the first day of the season and they'll be rotten on the last day of the season. The pieces didn't fit. Something was wrong. All that talent went wasted. Teams with far less talent won more games.

This is the point: The idea isn't to assemble the best talent; the idea is to win.

Milanovich is better. But Cummings is winning.

That should have mattered.

Cummings is all for the team, not for himself: a perfect leader. You knew that yesterday when he sat next to Milanovich at a news conference and refused to complain.

"No one in their right mind would want to give up what I had," he said. "But Coach Duff made the decision . . . and I was expecting it and it's OK."

Here is what should have happened: Milanovich should have gone to Duffner and said, "I'm dying to get in there, Coach, but I can't take his job in good conscience when we're 4-0. Things are just going too good. I don't want you to change a thing."

Of course, it would have been asking a lot of Milanovich, too much, to expect him to do that after what he has been through. He talked yesterday like a quarterback who has a lot to prove. He might put on a show tomorrow night.

But what if he doesn't?

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