COLLEGE PARK - Senior Chris Downs, a player with four carries in two years, will start tomorrow at tailback for Maryland, coach Ralph Friedgen announced yesterday after an afternoon practice.
Downs, who was unavailable to comment yesterday, will share time in the backfield with Jason Crawford and Mario Merrills, a pair of second-year players who got most of the team's 21 carries last week in a 22-0 loss to Notre Dame in the Kickoff Classic.
When asked if Downs' opportunity was a reflection on Crawford or Merrills, who combined for 22 yards on 14 carries in the opener, Friedgen said, "No, not at all. But he's practiced better than them."
Friedgen told the team of Downs' status before yesterday's practice, barely 24 hours after the coach declared that he had no changes in store for the starting backfield of quarterback Scott McBrien, fullback Chad Killian and Crawford.
"I'm going to stay with the same people," Friedgen had said Wednesday, assigning little of the blame for the Terps' anemic running attack (16 yards) to Crawford or Merrills.
However, the switch does come one day after Crawford had observed how few carries he and Merrills got during the Notre Dame game, and how well Maryland might do tomorrow against Akron, which has a smallish defensive line.
"I don't know if they lost confidence in us or what," said Crawford, a sophomore. "I don't know whether they think we can't do certain things. I had 10 carries and Mario had like five. That's 15 carries the entire game? They need to give us an opportunity."
Crawford had hoped such a chance would come against Akron. The Zips allowed 379 rushing yards on 44 carries (an 8.6-yard average) in a 57-21 loss to Iowa last week, leaving Crawford eager to face them.
"I can't wait. I don't know what y'all seen, but they look terrible," he said, perhaps violating pre-game protocol by talking down an opponent.
Friedgen, however, said he wasn't moved by Crawford's comments as much as a strong week by Downs.
"He's had the best week of practice," Friedgen said. "He's really improved. I've been kind of watching him and he's doing the little things right. But they're all going to play."
Downs played two seasons at Valley Forge Military Academy and College in Wayne, Pa., came to Maryland in 2000, but sat out that season as a redshirt to save a year of eligibility.
Downs played mostly special teams in the final six games of the 2001 season, had been one of the bright spots in spring practice, and had the best strength test scores of any tailback when fall camp began in early August.
"He deserves a shot," Friedgen said. "He's a senior. He's paid his dues here. And right now, I think he's playing the best. Whether he can do that Saturday, I don't know. But he's earned the right."
NOTES: Receiver Jafar Williams (shoulder sprain) is expected to play tomorrow. ... Comcast will televise tomorrow's game on a pay-per-view basis. Call 1-800-COMCAST.
Next for Terps
Opponent: Akron (0-1)
Site: Byrd Stadium, College Park
When: Tomorrow, 6 p.m.
TV/Radio: Comcast pay-per-view/ WIYY (97.9 FM)
Line: Maryland by 21