COLLEGE PARK - During Maryland's breakout 2001 season, one of the areas found wanting was the team's ability to return punts and kickoffs.
That has changed this season with sophomore Steve Suter, long undiscovered as a high school player in Carroll County, and widely ignored after his discovery.
He has been the one electrifying presence for Maryland (1-2). He is leading the Atlantic Coast Conference in kickoff returns with a 25.5-yard average and ranks second in punt returns at 13.5 yards per attempt.
Now, said the team's special teams coach, Ray Rychleski, the real challenge for Suter, a first-year letterman, is to flourish when opponents know who he is.
"We caught them off guard, because they didn't know what kind of guy he is," Rychleski said. "Now is the time where people are going to say, 'We've got to watch those guys.' "
People don't watch guys who look like the 5-foot-9, 187-pound Suter, even though he's the fastest Maryland player, timed at 4.35 seconds in the 40-yard dash, and tested out as the strongest wide-out in school history in August's pre-practice exams.
Perhaps he's ignored because he's from Manchester, where it was a 15-minute drive to a McDonald's and 20 to a Wal-Mart, where everyone knows everyone and where players don't go on to play Division I-A football. Or maybe because he looks like he should be writing for the school newspaper instead of being written about.
"I always get the jokes. People say: 'Are you the kicker?' " Suter said. "That's the stereotype. 'Small white kid: He's not doing anything skill-wise.' "
He was on his way to producing more than 4,000 rushing yards at North Carroll High, and he came to College Park before his junior year for a combine of all the state's juniors and had the camp's fastest 40-yard time and the highest vertical jump. Even then, while the Terrapins offered him a scholarship, his alternate opportunities were limited to Temple, Richmond and Towson.
For his first two years, Maryland's gamble didn't seem to pay off. Knee injuries kept him out for his first year in 2000, and he was redshirted (withdrawn athletically for a year to retain that season's eligibility). A broken index finger wiped out the final eight games of the 2001 season.
And yet, Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen was a big Suter booster during spring and fall camp, pegging the slotback for a possible breakout year as he moved past Rich Parson on the depth chart at the Z wide-out.
"I'd like to get the ball in his hands as a receiver, too," Friedgen said. "He's a guy who's improved and has been making big plays for the two-a-days. So I think he's playing confidently right now, and he's looking forward to getting the ball in his hands to make big plays."
For now, however, he's making his impact returning kicks. He returned a kickoff 51 yards late against Notre Dame. The next week, he fielded an Akron punt and took it back 81 yards for a touchdown, taking a game that had gotten momentarily scary and breaking it open for good.
On the touchdown, Suter bobbled the ball, split between two would-be tacklers and then juked the punter while watching the brand-new video scoreboard on the way to the end zone to make sure no one was too close to catching him.
"He has great vision," Rychleski said.
There are dual positives for Suter as he establishes himself. According to Rychleski, the returner's explosiveness is an incentive to the other special teams players, saying that "they'll block harder when they know there's a chance that it can go all the way."
The other benefit is some identity for Suter.
"They know who [place-kicker] Nick Novak is," he said, "and they know that I'm not Nick Novak."
NOTES: Friedgen said junior tailback Bruce Perry (groin injury), who has yet to play this season, is doubtful for Saturday's game against Eastern Michigan and will likely play for the first time Sept. 28 against Wofford.
Center Todd Wike (concussion) is questionable for Saturday but could practice today. Sophmore tailback Jason Crawford (hip flexor) is doubtful.
Sun staff writer Gary Lambrecht contributed to this article.
Next for Terps
Site:Byrd Stadium, College Park
When:Saturday, 6 p.m.
Line:Maryland by 35