At UM, expectations already high over Portis' QB potential

The Baltimore Sun

ORLANDO, Fla. -- The worst-kept secret in College Park stands 6 feet 3 and weighs 200 pounds. He's quick, athletic and supposedly has an arm endorsed by the NRA. Finally, with Friday night's victory in the Champs Sports Bowl providing an uplifting conclusion to Maryland's 2006 football season, we can stop uttering Josh Portis' name in our whisper voices.

As we bid adieu to Terps senior Sam Hollenbach, we fling open the front doors to a quarterback controversy. For the past year, Terps coaches had their feet firmly planted in the 2006 season, but don't think for a second that their peripheral vision didn't notice the potential that waited down the road.

Last week in Orlando, Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen said that Jordan Steffy, who will be a junior next season, will enter the spring ahead of Portis, the talented transfer from Florida who - depending on whom you want to believe - brings with him as much talent as baggage. In making such an announcement, Friedgen made a poor attempt at a preemptive strike against growing buzz surrounding the biggest question mark on next season's roster.

"People are building such a tremendous expectation," Friedgen said of Portis. "I don't want to put that on him. I want him to come in here and just do his best and see what happens."

The coach's remark does little to quell expectations or the popular belief that in Portis, Friedgen, an offensive-minded coach whose Maryland offenses have lacked a truly great quarterback, has finally found his man.

Somewhat understandably, coaches have been hesitant to speak much about a player who wasn't even eligible to play last season. But behind closed doors, many around the football program have been saying Portis has the potential to make big money playing football someday.

But his talent has never been the problem. At Florida, Portis was pushed aside, quietly labeled a head case. There were personality conflicts, and athletic department administrators there quickly tired of his mother, who moved from California to Gainesville and was a regular at Gators practices.

When Portis didn't see action in the Gators' season finale in 2004, he left the school, and it was his mother, Patricia, who did the explaining.

"If the kid doesn't have a redshirt left and it's the last game of the season, why not let him in with five minutes left? Reward him," she told The Palm Beach Post. "I'm not saying [Chris] Leak shouldn't be the starter. The thing is, just let [Josh] get some playing time to let him develop."

And when her son was shopping for a new college, Patricia Portis apparently thought she was talking with The Wall Street Journal when she told The Tampa Tribune that "Josh's stock will be higher than Microsoft."

The point here isn't to dredge up old news. We're actually talking about repeat behavior, though, and if the Terps' future is tied to the arm of a sophomore and the whim of his overbearing mother, it's best to start praying right now that some lessons were heeded on the road to College Park. We're talking about a player who attended three different high schools in his final two years and packs his bags more often than an airline pilot.

"I liked the woman a lot, but she had a skewed view that her kid was never being praised enough," Les Congelliere, athletic director at Redondo (Calif.) High, told the Orlando Sentinel last year. That's the high school Portis attended as a sophomore.

After her son starred on the junior varsity in 2002, Patricia Portis reportedly wanted a guarantee that the young quarterback would start for the varsity the next season. He left the school, according to Congelliere, rather than stay and fight for the job.

"His mom thought he should be given a free walk," Congelliere told the Sentinel. "That's not going to happen."

He never played at his next school, after learning that another talented quarterback was on the roster and transferred to Taft High in Woodland Hills, Calif., where he played from 2003 to 2004.

Portis signed with Urban Meyer at Florida but probably saw what the future held when the Gators went hard after Tim Tebow, a talented quarterback who was one of the nation's top recruits.

So Portis found his way to College Park nearly one year ago and has since wowed everyone with his athleticism. If you believe Friedgen, Portis has no guarantees entering next season, so are Terps fans left to simply knock on wood that the young quarterback will remain happy?

"It's been a tough year for me, I'm not gonna lie," Portis told an Orlando Sentinel reporter last week. "But I experienced it, and I think it's given me more maturity, and it helped me with what I want to help this team accomplish."

Portis said that it felt "kind of strange" to watch his former team prepare for a national title game from afar. "I'm happy for 'em," he said, and insists he has no regrets about leaving.

"If it's time to move on, it's time to move on," he told the Sentinel. "I don't look back at anything, because if you do look back at something, there's always going to be something that's holding you back."

Technically, Portis could have played in the Champs Sports Bowl, but there was certainly no sense in wasting a year of his eligibility over a few snaps Friday night - especially when you already have a senior quarterback who deserved every down he played.

There will be plenty of time to see what Portis can do, even if no one wants to publicly discuss expectations. Folks around Maryland report despite the school-hopping, Portis and his mother have embraced the Terps' program. And even though he wasn't taking snaps with the first string last season, his teammates have taken notice of Portis' athleticism. Wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey caught some of Portis passes last spring.

"He can throw the long ball," Heyward-Bey said. "He can throw it 75, 80 yards. So that'll be good for me."

And it could be good for Friedgen. A "quarterback" coach might finally have his quarterback.

College sports is often about second chances, and Portis and his mother deserve one. Hopefully they've learned from their experiences and the talented quarterback can finally give fans a reason to shout, not whisper.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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