Terrapins' special teams face unusual uncertainty

The Baltimore Sun

College Park -- Travis Baltz, Maryland's 18-year-old punter, had been expecting this, but it took about six months for his high school diploma to actually arrive. He had to wait for the rest of his former classmates to catch up.

"Finally," said Baltz, who graduated in December 2006 but didn't get the proof until June. "I've been joking that I'm in the class of 2006- point-five."

Baltz, a true freshman, graduated early from Anthony Wayne High School in Ohio so he could join the Terps this past spring -- a decision that has helped prime him for a rare role as a freshman starter.

"He's one of the boys," special teams coordinator Ray Rychleski said. "I wouldn't say he's a veteran, but at least he had a head start. I have a ton of confidence in his ability. Now we just have to get over the jitters of playing the first game, a true freshman starting. That doesn't happen at hardly any position. But he's got a strong leg. He wants to do it, he's confident. I like all his attributes. Now let's see what he can do under pressure. And you won't know until after the first game."

Maryland's entire special teams unit is an unknown heading into tomorrow's 6 p.m. season opener against visiting Villanova -- especially since kickoffs have been moved back 5 yards to the 30. Possibly the biggest question marks, though, are at punter, where Baltz is making his college debut, and at kicker, where Obi Egekeze has not attempted a kick in a regular-season game. Maryland hasn't broken in a new punter and kicker in the same season since 1993. The two of them had inconsistent springs and only recently earned their starting roles.

The uncertainty is a stark contrast to Maryland's recent reputation as one of the best special teams units in the Atlantic Coast Conference. During the past six seasons under Rychleski, Maryland has flourished:

The Terps' streak of 86 games without having a punt blocked is the longest in the country.

Maryland has made five of five game-winning field goals with less than a minute remaining or in overtime.

Maryland has blocked three of four game-winning field-goal attempts (the fourth went wide right).

In three of the past six years, Maryland finished in the top 10 nationally in net punting.

"I hope we don't stop that tradition," Baltz said. "... They really do make you realize how important special teams is. It's not just for us, it's for the whole team. It's a big deal and we know it."

Maryland has also had an All-ACC punter for six straight years -- including four-year starter Adam Podlesh, who graduated in December and is with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Baltz won the job ahead of Chris Roberts, who will handle kickoff duties.

"I don't think you're going to see Adam Podlesh right now with Travis," coach Ralph Friedgen said. "We're not going to be as good there as we've been, but if we can kick the ball, get some height on it, kick it 38 yards and cover, I'll feel great."

Baltz is talented enough that he was challenging Egekeze all spring for the kicking job. Egekeze has made seven of 12 field-goal attempts in the three scrimmages this summer.

"Obi really prepared this summer and has really come back and kicked extremely well," Friedgen said. "He's another guy who's got to do well in the game. Once he gets his confidence, I think he can be an outstanding kicker. ... I'm hoping he can go in there and hit a few and get that confidence. He's done that in practice where in the past sometimes he hasn't."

To prepare his kickers for the psychological abuse they'll endure on game days, Friedgen employs a few tactics of his own. According to Egekeze, Friedgen likes to yell things like, "Man, I've got your brain in my hand right here" and "Gosh, Obi, I know what you ate for dinner last night."

"I've gotten to the point where I don't even hear what he says," Egekeze said. "[Matt] Goldberg will come and tell me after PAT field goals, 'Man he said some funny stuff.' I didn't hear any of it. Then he'll tell me and I'll have a chuckle later on.

"That's the whole objective. He's trying to get in our ear so we're used to hearing things when we're out there on the field; 50,000 fans is going to be loud."

And until tomorrow, it's something they have yet to experience.

Notes -- Receiver Isaiah Williams will start ahead of LaQuan Williams, but both will play tomorrow. ... Redshirt freshman Adrian Moten is expected to earn his first college start at middle linebacker.heather.dinich@baltsun.com

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