Terps linebackers face learning curve Without Thomas, others must step up


COLLEGE PARK -- Mel Foels, the assistant coach who tutors Maryland's linebackers, was asked his impression of the Terps' season opener.

"As far as base alignment and technique, taking on and shedding blockers, we were very poor at that," Foels said. "Hopefully, we learned something. We're a better linebacking corps than what we showed."

Never mind that Maryland beat Northern Illinois, 30-6, last week. Never mind that the Terps will be without their ace linebacker, Ratcliff Thomas, for the second straight game, tonight at Byrd Stadium against Alabama-Birmingham. Never mind that all three his front-line pupils made their first college starts last week.

Foels expects more.

From right to left, redshirt sophomore Kendall Ogle, true sophomore Eric Barton and junior Brett White are attempting to polish a new scheme while minimizing the absence of Thomas, a three-year starter who has been sidelined by a separated shoulder since late August.

Thomas was Maryland's top tackler in each of the last three seasons. He could handle both the strong-side -- matching up on the tight end -- and weak-side spots. The Terps have since said so-long to "Sam" and "Will," and the outside linebackers now stick to one side of the field, regardless of the opponents' formation.

On the right, Ogle hasn't had any bad habits to unlearn.

He was a highly touted tailback in New Jersey, and as a freshman two years ago, Ogle was part of Black Thunder, Maryland's short-yardage offense. He was academically ineligible last season but shone on the scout teams. Ogle hasn't abandoned offense, either. The Terps' version of Deion Sanders scored his first collegiate touchdown on a one-yard dive last week.

"I've got tremendous respect for what Sanders is doing," Ogle said of the NFL's first two-way player since 1962. "Forget the physical energy it requires. Week to week, scheme to scheme, offense and defense, there's so much to learn."

Barton was the quickest learner at Maryland last year as the only true freshman to play for the Terps. Like Thomas, he's from Northern Virginia. Unlike Thomas, he didn't need a year of finishing at a prep school. Ready to contribute right out of Thomas Edison High, he's only 18.

"What helped about playing as a freshman," Barton said, "is that I knew I was going to have to start this year."

White joined the offense's overhaul and practiced as a fullback in the spring before returning to his natural position. He was supposed to back up Barton, but early in camp Foels asked him to be a floater and learn all three positions. That proved fortuitous when Thomas was injured -- White stepped in and filled the hole.

"I felt like Brett would add some stability at all three positions," Foels said. "To be honest, I've put too much on him, but he's responded."

White started the game-breaking play last week when his sack and strip of the Northern Illinois quarterback set up a 49-yard fumble return. He led the linebackers with seven tackles. Barton and Ogle had five apiece.

There were mistakes, and there are likely to be more tonight against Alabama-Birmingham, but the linebackers survived the opener.

Without Thomas.

"At practice the first few days without him, it was weird," Barton said.

"I would mess up, and I couldn't look to my left and ask Ratcliff what went wrong. In some ways, it helped that we got through a game without him. We got more playing time. We needed it."

NOTES: UAB gave scholarships to 21 freshmen, its first Division I-A recruiting class, but the Blazers have had 10 transfers from other major-college programs. Rodney Hudson, the starting quarterback , began his college career at Mississippi State. . . . Robert Davis, who gained 64 yards rushing in last week's 29-0 loss to Auburn, began at LSU. . . . Thomas is the only Maryland regular who'll miss the game with an injury. Running back Buddy Rodgers, who rested a pulled quadriceps muscle in the first half last week, is expected to start. . . . UAB received $175,000 from Auburn last week, and it will get $150,000 from Maryland.

Terps tonight

Opponent: Alabama- Birmingham

Site: Byrd Stadium, College Park

Time: 7

Radio: WBAL (1090 AM)

Pub Date: 9/07/96

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