COLLEGE PARK -- Could there be a better poster boy for Maryland than Brian Cummings?
The Terps have 17 starters back from their best team since 1990, but the consensus preseason opinion is that they'll finish sixth in the nine-team Atlantic Coast Conference. Sports Illustrated places them in the bottom half of major-college football, where their No. 60 ranking among Division I-A's 111 teams is a testament to mediocrity.
It's only motivation for Cummings, the junior quarterback whose throwing motion isn't hindered one bit by the chip on his shoulder. So what if Maryland has to silence some doubt? Cummings has been doing it throughout his career, and that's why he's the perfect leader for these Terps.
"One reason the other guys rally around Brian is that, in some sense, he's an overachiever," Maryland quarterback coach Rob Spence said. "Because of his height and size, he was perceived a certain way coming out of high school. He was told that he couldn't be a Division I quarterback.
"He carries that with him to this day. He wasn't recruited by anyone we play against. He still carries that attitude, 'You made a mistake.' Every day, he's lived with that issue, and fed off it. The other players feel it in practice, games. This kid is going to take it to the limit on every play."
Cummings is 5 feet 11 and 195 pounds. Coming out of Iona (N.Y.) Prep in 1993, he was taken in the 19th round of the baseball draft by the Montreal Expos, but stuck with Maryland, the only major-college football team that offered him a scholarship. Had Spence not coached at Iona Prep in the 1980s, Cummings might be playing minor-league baseball now.
Cocky on a pitcher's mound, Cummings always has had to overcome some inner conflict before a football game.
"When I was 8, I used to tell my dad I was scared before peewee games, because the other guys were so big," Cummings said. "I'd be OK after one play, and I'd end up having the time of my life, but I cried sometimes. It was just nerves, and that hasn't changed. I love the competition and I want to get into it, but I still feel sick before every game."
Maryland opened last season against Tulane in New Orleans, and the Big Easy was the Big Queasy for Cummings.
"I was nauseous before that one," Cummings said. "I kept telling myself, 'I'm going to the Superdome to start a college football game. This is what I've waited for all my life.' I think too much about stuff like that."
It was the start of a bizarre episode of the 1995 college season.
When Scott Milanovich was dealt a four-game gambling suspension by the NCAA, Cummings became Maryland's quarterback by default. The Terps were 4-0 without Milanovich, but coach Mark Duffner kept a promise to start him upon his reinstatement, and the resulting controversy contributed mightily to Maryland's losing five of its last seven.
"It was like pitching eight innings of no-hit ball and coming out," Cummings said.
Cummings got a no-decision against Tulane; he sprained an ankle in the first quarter. He followed with a gritty performance against North Carolina, a so-so one against West Virginia and a dream game against Duke.
A week from his 20th birthday, Cummings aged considerably over the next month. Milanovich was rocked by Georgia Tech, and Cummings won in relief at Wake Forest. He started against Clemson and Louisville, but the offense only worsened, and Milanovich went the entire way in the last three games.
"We got our butts kicked by Clemson and Louisville," Cummings said. "It wasn't any fun, but at the least, I was out there battling. The last three games, I knew my football for 1995 was done, and I lost interest."
This season, there is no doubt who is running the offense.
Ken Mastrole has worked his way up to No. 2 on the depth chart, but he's a redshirt freshman who never has played a down of college football. Cummings would have to be seriously injured for Mastrole to come in with a game on the line.
Duffner since has backed off the assertion, but his spin off the Georgia Tech debacle included a suggestion that Cummings was too hurt to play. Besides the ankle sprain against Tulane, Cummings suffered a bruised shoulder and a broken bone in his foot last September.
"I could have played every game," Cummings said. "I had no business playing against North Carolina, but I did. Two years ago, I had my knee scoped. I was back on the field in a week. dealt with pain my whole life."
Duffner has seen enough to try to cut back on Cummings' daredevil style.
"I worry about Brian sometimes," Duffner said. "One of our kids said he's a linebacker playing quarterback. On a scramble, when he can slide to get down, he'll try to run over a kid for extra yards. We've still got to get some of that out of him, but you've got to love that toughness."
Cummings has as many career touchdowns rushing, five, as he does passing. The run-and-shoot was tailored to his misdirection skills last September, but the focus changed when Milanovich, a drop-back passer, returned.
Maryland since has installed formations that include a tight end and a fullback, all designed to relieve pressure on the quarterback.
There are other, more subtle changes at the position.
Before he ever started a game for Maryland and began rewriting the Terps' passing records, Milanovich spoke of his future in the NFL, and he made the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as a free agent. Cummings knows that there isn't much of a market in the NFL for 5-11 quarterbacks.
"You'll never catch get this young man overlooking an opponent," Spence said.
"On game day, Scott was like that, too, but sometimes he was more concerned with what was going to happen a year or two down the road. Brian is living for the here and now."
Terps at a glance
Coach: Mark Duffner (fifth season, 15-29 overall).
Last year: 6-5, 4-4 in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Radio: WBAL (1090 AM).
Stadium: Byrd (48,000).
Top returning players: QB Brian Cummings; RB Buddy Rodgers; WR Geroy Simon; C Erik Greenstein; CB A.J. Johnson, CB Chad Scott; FS Lamont Gore; LB Ratcliff Thomas; DT Johnnie Hicks; DE Al Wallace; DE Eric Ogbogu.
Top newcomers: RB Harold Westley; OG Ben Thomas, DT Ramon Olivares.
Strengths: The Terps have eight starters returning on a defense that has been at the core of Maryland's improvement from two to four to six wins over the last three seasons. Six of them played in 1993, when they allowed an NCAA record 553 yards per game, but that figure was down to 350.5 yards last season. As a sophomore, Buddy Rodgers gained 718 yards, the most by a Maryland back in a decade, and his versatility is a key to the Terps' overhauled offense.
Weaknesses: The new offensive schemes will rely on blocking talent that is unproven. The offensive line could start a walk-on at right guard and a former walk-on at tight end. The starting fullback is a converted defensive lineman, and there is a suspicion that the run and shoot, warts and all, will still figure prominently. The special teams need greater consistency.
Strongest opponent: Florida State. The Seminoles had their 29-game ACC win streak ended at Virginia last November, but they've been invincible against the Terps. In four tries, Duffner hasn't come within four touchdowns of Bobby Bowden.
Key game: The mid-season stop is at North Carolina. Duffner has yet to beat a quality ACC opponent on the road, something the Terps must do if they want to get to a bowl game for the first time since 1990.
Date ....... Opponent ........ Time
Aug. 31 .... N. Illinois ........ 7
Sep. 7 ..... Alabama-Birm. ...... 7
Sep. 14 .... at Virginia ..... noon
Sep. 28 .... at West Virginia ... 6
Oct. 5 ..... N.C. State ...... noon
Oct. 12 .... at N. Carolina .. noon
Oct. 19 .... Wake Forest-x ...... 2
Oct. 26 .... at Duke .......... TBA
Nov. 2 ..... at Clemson ....... TBA
Nov. 14 .... Georgia Tech ....... 8
Nov. 23 .... Florida State-y .. TBA
x-homecoming; y-at Miami
Pub Date: 8/29/96