Route changes

The Baltimore Sun

COLLEGE PARK - It was the opening kickoff of Maryland's opening game.

Before taking his position on the kick-return team, Kenny Tate allowed himself to survey the scene. Byrd Stadium's worn bleachers were filled with nearly 50,000 fans, most wearing Maryland red. "It doesn't get any better than this," Tate recalled thinking to himself.

The ball was kicked high into the warm, late-summer air, and Tate's freshman season had officially begun.

Over the next three months, Maryland fans would come to know Tate as a promising young safety and special teams player. At 6 feet 4, with good hands and speed, he might be big enough and good enough to become a star - perhaps even play in the NFL one day.

What fans didn't see was the adjustment that Tate - and all the first-year Terrapins - had to make to bridge the deep chasm between high school and major-college football.

For the first time in his life, Tate didn't have his mother to wake him on school days or prepare the two jelly sandwiches he eats for good luck before every game.

Because the college season is so much longer than the high school season, the former DeMatha football and basketball star had to will his body to continue as the season wound down.

But the biggest adjustment came in preseason drills. Tate had been recruited as a receiver and was rated by almost every scouting service among the top 25 in the nation at the position. In recruiting him, Maryland assistant coach James Franklin showed Tate a compelling PowerPoint presentation on how the Terps could be expected to spread the ball around to a variety of receivers. The presentation helped persuade Tate to choose Maryland over Illinois, Ohio State, Florida and other schools he had considered.

But Tate and his parents were summoned by head coach Ralph Friedgen in August and asked whether he was willing to switch to defense - to safety - for the benefit of the team.

The semester hadn't even started, and Tate was already being asked to make a decision that could affect his football career for years to come.

During the next three months, The Baltimore Sun followed Tate to chronicle the challenges he and other players face in their first seasons. It found that for all Maryland does to assist its young players - Tate spent roughly a dozen hours a week in a program to help athletes with their academics - the first season is almost inevitably overwhelming.

Everything is magnified compared with high school. The courses are more challenging, the practices are longer and the pressure from fans, peers and coaches to excel at football is heightened.

"The first semester in college is the hardest adjustment for students," said Dahlia Levin, an academic support specialist for the team. "Then you add football, and it just makes it that much tougher."

The daily grind

For as long as he could remember, Tate had relied on his mother as his personal alarm clock. That changed when the freshman moved into his dormitory suite with fellow Terps Davin Meggett, Cameron Chism, Kerry Boykins, Ben Pooler and Torrey Smith. All were first-year players, although Smith and Pooler had redshirt seasons behind them.

On a typical day, the soft-spoken, diligent Tate set his alarm for 6 a.m. Mandatory team breakfast began at 7.

An hour later, Tate, who is interested in business but hasn't declared a major, was usually in class. His course load included African-American studies, women's studies and mathematics.

But his most important time off the field might have been the hours he spent at the Gossett Team House - the modern brick football facility - in the Intensive Learning Program, or ILP.

The program is designed to get Tate and other athletes up to speed academically. Because of their special skills - in this case, football - many in ILP were admitted to Maryland without the same academic credentials as most other students.

The Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, a watchdog group, has expressed generalized concern about institutions lowering academic requirements for many athletes but not for comparable numbers of other students who might be artists or dancers or possess other skills.

Maryland says its program, known as individual admissions, includes students who aren't athletes. Under it, the university admits applicants who might specialize in such areas as "chemistry, business or acting that complemented their high school experience," said Kathleen Worthington, senior associate athletic director. Worthington said no data are available on how many athletes - compared with nonathletes - have been admitted under the program.

Tate's ILP training was just for athletes. He said he learned critical skills such as taking notes and writing papers. "The goal is to be out [of ILP] in two years and be independent," said Levin, his instructor.

At 2:45 p.m., Tate began football meetings. An hour later, he would be suited up and ready for a practice session that lasted two hours or more.

"Some days practice is really tiring," Tate said. "And then you've still got a lot of homework, and you've got to do it all over again the next day."

The decision

Preseason practice had barely begun when Friedgen invited Tate in for a talk.

"Coach Friedgen brought me into his office - me and my mom and dad - and he asked me if I would like to change positions to safety because I had a better chance of playing because that's where we need some help this year," Tate said.

Friedgen said he didn't want to push hard if Tate resisted. Friedgen said he knew Tate had been recruited as a receiver, and Maryland didn't want to lose credibility with future prospects by seeming to shift players around.

Tate had been studying offensive plays and dreamed of being a receiver.

But the freshman, eager to make a good first impression, wanted to be a team player. He also hoped to play immediately. "Everybody wants to play their freshman year," Tate said.

So Tate became a safety, with the understanding that his position would be reviewed before next season and that he could be switched back.

Said Friedgen: "I think he's going to be really good whether he goes back to wide receiver or stays at safety. He really has tremendous hands."

The games

Beginning with Maryland's season-opening win over Delaware, Tate loved the excitement of racing onto the field for games. But he wasn't fazed by them.

Like other former high school athletes from top-notch athletic programs - and DeMatha certainly qualifies - Tate had grown accustomed to playing in front of big crowds. He got over his stage fright playing high school basketball, a sport in which spectators are close to the action and players don't wear helmets and feel more exposed.

But Tate had much to learn during his first college season. Not only was he playing a new position, but also - other than special teams - he wasn't a starter. That meant he had to learn patience and wait for his opportunity.

It wasn't easy.

As the season progressed, Tate played more and more. By the third game, he was in on about every third defensive series, usually to spell Jeff Allen at strong safety.

He kept waiting for an opposing quarterback to throw the ball in his direction. "Being a freshman, they see me back there and they're like, 'Oh, he doesn't know what he's doing,' " Tate said.

Tate firmly believed he would catch anything thrown his way.

In the seventh game, against Wake Forest, Tate got his chance. He jumped a route in the second quarter and got the ball in his hands with plenty of space in front of him, but dropped it.

"I would have scored, no question," Tate said dejectedly.

But he didn't let the play get him down. Nor did he lose his confidence when a 59-yard touchdown pass floated barely over his outstretched fingers against North Carolina in the 10th game. By then, Tate said, the season had gone on longer than in high school, and he was feeling some fatigue.

Wide receiver Danny Oquendo, a senior, said the laid-back Tate possesses just the right balance of assurance and humility to succeed in college, and perhaps beyond. Like many former high school stars, Tate doesn't lack confidence. But he's not a showboat.

"He's a great guy and he's a freak athlete," Oquendo said. "But he's not cocky."

Tate - who finished the regular season with 13 tackles but no interceptions - is in many ways still a kid.

Consider the jelly sandwiches.

In eighth grade, Tate needed to eat something before a football game. His mother fixed him a couple of jelly sandwiches.

He played so well in that middle-school game that he never wanted to break the routine.

These days, his mother isn't around to fix the pre-game snack. So Tate makes it himself. "The jelly is like a little burst of sweet energy," he says, sounding even younger than his 18 years.

MARYLAND (7-5) vs. NEVADA (7-5)

Humanitarian Bowl

Boise, Idaho

Tuesday,

4:30 p.m.

TV: ESPN

Radio: 105.7 FM, 1300 AM

Line: Nevada by 2

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