COLLEGE PARK -- The first time Tim Watson played college football, he got down in a three-point stance and eyed All-America tight end Kyle Brady, one of the mismatches that allowed Penn State to pummel Maryland, 70-7, two years ago.
Tim Brown's scars were older. As a true freshman in 1992, he was on the short end of Florida State's 69-21 rout of the Terps, an outcome that padded Charlie Ward's Heisman Trophy candidacy.
A victory over Clemson today at noon at Byrd Stadium would move Maryland closer to a winning season and bowl berth for only the second time in a decade, and the key ingredient in that resurgence has been immense defensive improvement.
A handful of newcomers has helped, but nine of the defensive starters played two years ago, and the Terps are winning because they have grown up and are no longer being bullied.
"The first time I ever walked on a field here, I lined up across from Kyle Brady," said Watson, describing his introduction against a future NFL first-round draft choice. "I had watched him in high school because I played some tight end, and I looked up to him. I was 18 years old, physically and mentally young. I definitely shouldn't have been playing."
Watson, a tackle now but an end then, was one of 11 freshmen who appeared on Maryland's defense two years ago. The year before that, linebackers Brown and Gene Gray each got several starts as freshmen. In both years, Maryland finished last in Division I-A in yards allowed, setting an NCAA record for futility in 1993.
"People didn't know what to say to us after some of those games," said junior Ratcliff Thomas, the strong-side linebacker who is the leading tackler for the third straight year. "You can giggle or use the word blowout after some games, but after that Penn State game when we were freshmen? People felt pity for us."
No longer forlorn, the defense is the anchor of the team, though it has been overshadowed by a quarterback controversy. Redshirt sophomore Brian Cummings will return as starting quarterback today after two unimpressive starts by Scott Milanovich.
Other than a nine-minute lapse at the end of the lone loss at Georgia Tech, the defense has been remarkably steady. There were complaints about the offense in a close call at Wake Forest two weeks ago, but did anyone notice that the 9-6 score represented the fewest points the Terps have had in a victory in 15 years?
Depending upon the offensive formation, tackles Watson and Johnnie Hicks will alternate over center, and Thomas and Mike Settles, the outside linebackers, pop up in all sorts of places, but it's basically the same 4-3 scheme that coach Mark Duffner installed three years ago.
The Terps still aren't overwhelming physically. Brown, the middle linebacker, weighs 220 pounds. Settles is 210. As a group, however, they know their assignments, are swarming to the ball, and hitting harder once they get there.
"What people are forgetting is that even though we've made a lot of improvement, it's still a young defense," Watson said. "I think I've played in 12 college games."
Brown, Settles and strong safety Darrick Rather are the only senior starters. Watson and Hicks, who were academically ineligible to play last year, have two more years left, as do ends Eric Hicks and Eric Ogbogu, who leads the team with seven tackles behind the line.
The true juniors and redshirt sophomores were rushed into action two years ago because older players were injured or had left the program. Positions that used to be gained by default must now be earned.
Thomas, Johnnie Hicks, cornerback A. J. Johnson (whose five interceptions lead the ACC) and free safety Lamont Gore were regular starters two years ago as true freshmen. When Gore was unable to play at North Carolina State that year, Maryland was left with four healthy defensive backs. Last year, the Terps went to camp with 14 scholarship defensive backs, and he became a second-teamer.
"It used to be just a few guys taking the majority of reps in practice," said Gore, who beat out Wade Inge to regain his spot. "Now, there's constant competition in practice. Who has the most interceptions? Who has the biggest hit? There's some raw talent among the younger guys, but it's going to be a while LTC before they play. That's good."
Gore said he didn't mind the horrible beatings of 1993 because he was playing right away. The players who survived that ordeal talked a good game, while masking some inner doubts.
"I don't think there were a lot of believers that we would be able to turn things around," said Brown, the second-leading tackler behind Thomas. "My first two years, we were last in the nation in total defense. You can deny it all you want, but that wears on you."
An underrated factor in the rebuilding has been Kevin Coyle, a longtime friend of Duffner's who was brought in as defensive coordinator in December 1993. Coyle coaches by the book, but after the defense limited West Virginia to 10 points in the Terps' third victory, the players took time to revel in the rain with several hundred fans who stormed the field. That's when Coyle ignored his manual.
"I'm one of those guys who says, 'Get your butt in the locker room' after a game," Coyle said. "After that one, though, I kind of stood back for a few minutes watching, because it was something to see. There was an unbelievable sense of pride, knowing that for the first time in a long time, they really felt good about themselves."
In four seasons under coach Mark Duffner, Maryland has gone from the worst defense in Division I-A to a ranking of 22nd. A look at the year-by-year improvement in average yards and points allowed per game, with the Terps' national ranking in
Year .. .. .. .. ..Yards .. .. .. .. ..Points
1992 .. .. .. ...474.4 (107) .. ...33.2 (100)
1993 .. .. .. ...553.0 (106) .. ...43.6 (105)
1994 .. .. .. .. .434.4 (93) .. .. .29.6 (86)
1995 .. .. .. .. .315.5 (22) .. .. .18.3 (22)