Hidden talent is quite a find

THE BALTIMORE SUN

There was little to recommend Madieu Williams' decision to transfer from Towson to Maryland after the 2000 college football season. He followed a promising freshman season with a sophomore year that included more time in the training room than on the field.

"A lot of people doubted that I had the ability to play for Maryland," the senior safety said. "Any risk has its rewards, and I was confident in my skills."

So he leapt and fell into the laps of the Terps' coaches, where he sat out a season and then spent the next one blossoming into a candidate for the Jim Thorpe Award, given to the nation's top defensive back.

In the process, he has become an example of the vagaries of evaluating college football prospects. It is a chancy endeavor in which castaways withstand a bad day at camp, a lackluster high school program, questionable academics or an undeveloped body to become college stars or even NFL draft picks.

Conversely, Parade All-Americans can turn into flops. The unraveling of can't-miss prospects vexes Indiana coach Gerry DiNardo, whose unsuccessful tenure at Louisiana State was marred by would-be superstars.

"It's who's playing for us that's more important than who Randy Moss is playing for," DiNardo said of failed personnel decisions at LSU he wants to avoid at Indiana. "It's not the ones you miss who beat you, it's the ones you take who can't play. That's a problem."

Georgia Tech coach Chan Gailey, who has also coached in the pros, spoke about the uncertainties. "If this was an exact science, everyone would be doing it. The NFL spends millions of dollars on evaluating college players, and they mess it up."

Terrence Newman, the fifth selection in the 2003 draft out of Kansas State, had Kansas and Tulsa as his alternate suitors. Santana Moss, the 16th guy taken in the 2001 draft, went to Miami as a walk-on.

The unpredictability was shown by Marshall's Byron Leftwich and Chad Pennington both becoming first-round picks, making the West Virginia school they attended today's Quarterback U.

Kansas State, Virginia Tech, West Virginia and Purdue are programs that have cultivated reputations for culling Top 20 teams out of talent not nearly as highly regarded.

Thinking of the undervalued freshmen he might have, Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen said: "I don't know if any of them are Madieus, but you never know. They can develop, and that can happen."

Maryland could have had Williams coming out of DuVal High School in Prince George's County in 1999, with his Lanham home a Beltway exit away. But when he attended the Terps' summer camp the year before, he gave the coaching staff - then led by Ron Vanderlinden - little reason to show interest.

He was a 5-foot-7, 170-pound cornerback who ran the 40-yard dash in 4.65 seconds - glacial for that position - playing for a school known more for girls basketball than football. And he hadn't reached the NCAA qualifying score on the ACT.

Mike Locksley, a former Maryland assistant currently at Florida, said that Williams might have flourished whether he had gone to Towson or if he had entered College Park in 1999. "If you give a guy a year or two in a good program, he's going to get better."

But being one of Towson's prized recruits at the time, Williams played immediately as a freshman and received more individual coaching than he might have received as a low-priority player for the Terps.

"It was a blessing, to work on my skills, to work on myself, and I was able to play right away," he said, while lauding the position-specific coaching from John Swigart, an assistant at Towson at the time. "I got the chance to get better, getting the chance to get the coaching I never had."

By the time he reported to winter workouts in early 2001, he was 6 feet 2, weighing 210 pounds and running two-tenths of a second faster than he had in camp roughly 30 months before. "He wasn't the same little kid," Locksley said.

In an effort to refine Indiana's efforts to find talent, DiNardo appointed himself his own recruiting coordinator and said the program would put more emphasis on watching tape in players' senior seasons.

That is similar to the NFL approach of deciding on a player based on his most recent performances, and runs counter to the increasing trend of getting commitments from players before their senior seasons.

Friedgen said Maryland uses a rating system - with each player judged in 10 categories - designed to help coaches avoid overemphasizing a player's skills or his speed, height and weight.

At the same time, he said he prefers taller linemen because he hopes they will fill out. "When the NFL gets them, they're not going to get much bigger," Friedgen said. "But in college, there's a lot of room for growth."

Coaches contend there's no way to predict the emergence of a player like Williams. After all, Ohio was the only other school to even express interest.

It helps if a program is able to wait on players to mature, as Williams did. ABC analyst and former Auburn coach Terry Bowden spoke of Nebraska's walk-on program, in which the roster swelled to 200 players with "all those country boys who would develop into men."

For Friedgen, the silver lining in having a dearth of elite high school programs in the area is that it presents more chances to find diamonds in the rough.

"Kids in Florida and Georgia are further along, because they've been exposed to more football," Friedgen said. "They're going to be more polished. But in the long run, some of them have reached their potential. In this area, you've got a chance to get a good player."

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