College Park-- --The rhythms of the season are changing, and Ralph Friedgen has been in the game long enough to know when Week 1 is near. A veteran coach can measure the calendar with tightened nerves and sleepless nights.
Friedgen has been leaving the University of Maryland's football offices about 11 o'clock each night. He gets home and gets only about halfway through an episode of Law & Order before falling asleep. Inevitably, he'll wake up about 4ish, turn off the TV and snooze until about 4:45 a.m., when he wakes up and makes a beeline back to work.
"It's a wonderful life," he said yesterday.
After all this time, nearly 40 years of coaching, Friedgen can be just a couple of days away from a new season - the Terps host Villanova on Saturday - and still not predict with any confidence how his team might fare. I won't pretend I know, either.
But I do know - and yeah, I'm really going out on the limb here - that a lot will hinge on the performance of the Terps' quarterbacks and, just as importantly, Friedgen's handling of them.
When Friedgen returned to his alma mater as head coach in 2001, expectations varied. Fans were justified to anticipate Maryland fielding a competitive team and participating in a bowl game each year.
And at the absolute least, it was reasonable to expect to see an exciting and productive offense from week to week, especially considering the coach's pedigree. On this last point, Friedgen has failed Maryland faithful in recent years.
I think even Friedgen, who is entering his seventh season roaming the Terps' sideline, would tell you it's beyond time that he reminds everyone how he earned such a heady reputation as an offensive mastermind. And this year, he just might have the pieces to do it, too.
The idea of splitting playing time between two quarterbacks - junior Jordan Steffy and sophomore Josh Portis - isn't the reason for offensive hope, though. To pull off that juggling act, you really need a pair of good horses, not to mention the ability to avoid predictability while performing the cha-cha on hot coals.
Mark Richt did it at Georgia, and Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer pulled it off at Florida, but they knew they had the talent. The gut feeling on this one - supported by the odd circumstances surrounding the delayed announcement of Steffy as the Terps' Week 1 starter - could lead you to believe that Friedgen is flirting with the idea of rotating quarterbacks not because he feels he has two good ones, but because he's still not convinced which is the right one.
With a couple of easier games set for the first two weeks of the season, the way Friedgen uses his quarterbacks could serve as an extended audition for Steffy and Portis.
Steffy had much more time working with the first-string offense throughout August practices and will get the large majority of the snaps. That's as much a chance to cement his spot atop the depth chart as it is an opportunity to fumble the job away. As we seem to observe during the early stages of every season, Friedgen's quarterbacks tend to start slowly, either because they're lacking in confidence or skills or because they're just not familiar with the playbook.
When Steffy was first handed the 5-inch-thick playbook as a freshman, he said his initial reaction was, "How does anybody understand this stuff?" He says he does now, but he says the Terps' playbook is still more difficult than any college textbook he has had to study. ("Physics is kind of hard, too," wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey said.)
Outside of the quarterback position (and the lack of depth and inexperience on the offensive line), Friedgen has good reason to feel confident in just about every other part of the offense. Keon Lattimore and Lance Ball return to the backfield, and among Heyward-Bey, LaQuan Williams, Danny Oquendo and Isaiah Williams, the Terps might have the best receiving corps in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
No one questions whether Friedgen has the offensive know-how. He was offensive coordinator when Georgia Tech won a share of the national title and again when the San Diego Chargers reached the Super Bowl. But he has yet to find any semblance of that past success in College Park, and this year looks to be the best opportunity he has had. Plus, by pulling double duty for a second year as offensive coordinator, there's no one to blame at season's end if the offense isn't up to par.
Just Friedgen and the quarterback.
Is he nervous entering the team's first game? Sure, as much as any other year.
"What you're worried about is, is it getting done the way it needs to be done? Are these kids listening to you? Are they motivated, are they hungry, do they want to be as successful as I want to be? Therein lies the apprehension," he said.
Friedgen was asked whether he knew how good this year's team might be. How do you answer that? Friedgen thought he'd know his starting quarterback one week into training camp. It took him three weeks, and he's still saying he'll give both Steffy and Portis playing time. So how good is this team? Who knows?
"I can't answer that question. Only time's going to tell," he said. "But we'll start finding out about it Saturday."