COLLEGE PARK — COLLEGE PARK - The ball is in the air.
The smallest player on the field shuffles his feet, looks skyward and moves into position.
An army of tacklers is thundering down on him, looking to separate his head from his body.
Fifty-thousand pairs of eyes watch, and the stadium pulses with anticipation.
In a few seconds, they'll be on their feet and screaming, and he'll be racing toward the end zone. But at this moment, Steve Suter hears nothing. It's true what they say: For the best punt returners, things get real quiet. Everything slows down, right up until the second the ball flutters softly into his hands. By then, there's only time for a quick glance upfield, and maybe one cut.
Before the other team realizes what's happening, Suter is gone.
"It's just a blur of colors," he says.
In the past year, nobody has kept his calm in those moments of special teams fury quite like Suter, who tied an NCAA record in 2002 with four punt returns for touchdowns. His speed and vision make him a threat to score every time the ball ends up in his hands, which Maryland would like to see happen a lot more these days, starting with tomorrow's game against West Virginia. Suter, who missed Maryland's season opener with an injury, will start at receiver for the second straight week.
Even when he's not at his best, Suter can still be electric, as evidenced during last week's 61-0 win over The Citadel. Weak from nervous vomiting during pre-game, and still nursing a hamstring injury, Suter returned a punt 75 yards for a touchdown and admitted afterward he never even reached top speed.
"I've never seen anyone like him," says Ray Rychleski, Maryland's special teams coach. "He can feel a guy in front of him and still concentrate on the ball. He just has that instinct. He knows when people are near, he knows how to catch the ball, and he knows how to make the first guy miss.
"That's the key, making the first guy miss. From that point, you need some help. And guys really love and respect him. They know he can take it to the house every time, so they're going to try and do everything they can to not screw it up."
It's not something many would have predicted when Suter arrived at Maryland in 2000. Recruited out of North Carroll High School by former coach Ron Vanderlinden, the 5-foot-9, 190-pound Suter was the second-smallest player on the team. Only the kicker, Brian Kopka, was smaller. More than a few eyebrows were raised.
"I've always been little," Suter says. "I'm used to it. I've just always tried to use my size as an advantage instead of looking at it as a disadvantage."
Growing up in the small town of Manchester, Suter was always fast, but he hardly seemed predestined for greatness.
"They'd have those little kid races in school, and he'd win every one," says his mother, Lynn Suter. "Coaches and gym teachers were always telling us what a great athlete he was, but we'd never had a son before. We had nothing to compare it with. I remember in elementary school, someone told me he'd probably be good enough to get a college scholarship one day. I was like, 'Really?' It seemed like a long ways off to me."
Baseball, in fact, was Suter's first love. He could fly around the base paths, track down fly balls in the gap and, most importantly in his mother's eyes, avoid getting hurt.
That all changed when John Etzel, who coached football with the Hampstead Recreation Council, spotted him during a baseball game and persuaded him to come out for football. Lynn Suter was not thrilled.
"She was a little reluctant to let her little boy get beat on," Suter says. "Luckily, [Etzel] convinced her it would be fine, thank God, and things took off from there."
By the time Suter got to high school, he was still only 126 pounds, and the coaching staff wasn't convinced he could take a pounding at the varsity level. Several freshmen got the chance to join the varsity late in the year, but Suter wasn't one of them.
"He's always been a star at everything, so that was a major wakeup call," says Lynn Suter. "He immediately went and started lifting weights and getting stronger."
Impressions quickly changed. Suter made the varsity as a sophomore, and over the next three years, he rushed for more than 4,000 yards. By the time he was a senior, he was signing autographs for little kids. North Carroll, however, wasn't exactly a recruiting hotbed, and so when Suter sent a highlight tape to Maryland, he was a little hurt when he never heard back.
"I think they threw it in a closet and forgot about it," Suter says. "I showed up at their camp and ran like the fastest 40 time [4.3 seconds] and had the highest vertical jump. They were like, 'Wow, why don't you send us a highlight tape?' I said, 'Um, I sent you one six months ago.' They called me back a few weeks later and said, 'We like what we see.' "
Speed kicks in
Problem was, Suter couldn't stay healthy enough to get on the field. His knees have never been great (he's had three surgeries on them already), and his freshman year at Maryland, he broke the pointer finger on his left hand so badly, he had to have a pin inserted to help the break heal.
"He really messed up his hand," Lynn Suter says. "I told him to hang up his spikes because he was just suffering. The pin is still there, and the finger doesn't bend. They weren't sure if he'd be able to catch with it."
As a result, Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen didn't know what to think about Suter.
"Everyone kept saying how fast he was, but I didn't see it," Friedgen says. "Then last year, things started to click for him and his speed really became a factor. He's such a bright guy, too. For some guys, that doesn't translate into football intelligence, but it does for Steve."
In Maryland's opener last season, Suter returned a kickoff 51 yards against Notre Dame. In the next game against Akron, he burst free for an 81-yard punt return. After punt returns for touchdowns against Duke and West Virginia, Friedgen started looking for ways to get Suter the ball any way he could. In Maryland's upset win over N.C. State, Suter scored on a 61-yard reverse, then later caught a 36-yard pass that set up the game-winning field goal.
"He is such a talent," N.C. State coach Chuck Amato said of Suter after the game. "When you have someone that can make plays for you, you need to find ways to put the ball in his hands."
He was avoiding tacklers left and right, and was on his way to being named first-team All-Atlantic Coast Conference. He also had one of the highest grade point averages on the team (3.8). There was one thing, however, he couldn't shake: his habit of pre-game puking. Without fail, five minutes before kickoff, teammates know they can find Suter throwing up in the bathroom stalls.
"I've tried everything," Suter says. "It's something I've done since high school. I've tried eating more, eating less, drinking water, it doesn't matter. Seems like every game I'm good for one of those. I don't know if I just can't control my emotions or what, but I just get too excited out there."
Except on punt returns. There he's a picture of calm. Suter even watches sometimes on the scoreboard video screen to see if anyone is about to catch him from behind. Against The Citadel, just as Suter was breaking into the open, he happened to lock eyes with his roommate Domonique Foxworth, who was sprinting back to block a would-be tackler.
"I was going left and I saw a guy I need to cut back on," Suter says. "I looked up and made eye contact with Domonique. He knew. He bumped his guy out, I cut left and was gone. It's always cool when you do that, because later we're like, 'I saw you! I saw you!' ...
"I really like being a returner. I love the feeling of breaking tackles. I look up sometimes and see my name on the stadium [for being named All-ACC], and I can't believe it. It's a dream come true."
Steve Suter's longest key plays for Maryland: 2002
81-yard punt return for TD vs. Akron
91-yard TD catch vs. Eastern Michigan
80-yard punt return for TD vs. West Virginia
63-yard punt return for TD vs. Duke
77-yard punt return for TD vs. North Carolina
64-yard TD run on a reverse vs. N.C. State
79-yard punt return vs. Tennessee in Peach Bowl 2003
75-yard punt return for TD vs. The Citadel
Next for Terps
Matchup:West Virginia (1-2) vs. Maryland (1-2)
Site:Byrd Stadium, College Park
When:Tomorrow, 6 p.m.
Radio:WNST (1570 AM), WMAL (630 AM)
Line:Maryland by 9