Last season, Kenny Tate was a 19-year-old sophomore safety who habitually ate two jelly sandwiches for good luck before games, a habit carried over from middle school.
Tate — a former DeMatha receiver who is almost linebacker-sized at 6 feet 4, 220 pounds — was clearly promising but also a little raw. He struggled at times, and so did his Maryland teammates as they adjusted to the pressing, blitzing schemes of first-year defensive coordinator Don Brown.
A year later, Brown believes his defense — and Tate in particular — is maturing.
As the Terps (1-0, 0-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) prepared to face Morgan State (1-0, 0-0 Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference) for the first time Saturday, Brown said his players had committed the defense to muscle memory.
It's the difference, he suggested, between delicately walking through a new dance step and dancing with abandon and ease.
"Our guys knew what to do last year, but they didn't know how to ad-lib and disguise," Brown said. "We're kind of at another point right now."
Tate's progression is particularly noteworthy.
Recruited as a receiver, he was rated by almost every scouting service among the Top 25 in the nation at the position. In 2008, coach Ralph Friedgen called Tate, his mother and his father into his office and asked the freshman to consider switching positions to improve depth at safety.
Tate agreed. He finished the season with 15 tackles and one interception, then had 47 tackles and an interception last year.
In Monday's season-opening, 17-14 win over Navy, Tate — an NFL prospect who teammates call a "freak" because of his combination of size and athleticism — had the sort of game coaches had long imagined he would.
With the Terps ahead 14-7, Tate launched himself at Navy's Ricky Dobbs as the quarterback was about to cross the goal line. "My helmet hit right on the ball," forcing a fumble that was recovered by linebacker Ryan Donohue, Tate said.
Tate, along with fellow safety Antwine Perez, also hit Dobbs on the goal line in the final moments to preserve Maryland's first victory after seven losses to end the 2009 season.
"I think that was the best game I've ever seen him play," Friedgen said. "He played with a lot of emotion in this game."
It may seem odd for coaches to compliment a defense that surrendered 412 rushing yards and 26 first downs. The Terps gave up large swaths of yardage to Navy between the 20-yard-lines.
But five times the Midshipmen moved into the red zone without collecting a point. During those drives, Maryland's defense made some memorably hard hits. There was linebacker Adrian Moten leaping over top to hit Dobbs. There was defensive tackle Joe Vellano making two sacks. And there was Tate.
Maryland has yet to be tested against a passing team. Dobbs only attempted 10 passes, completing six for 73 yards.
Morgan State quarterback Donovan Dickerson will be making his second career start Saturday. The sophomore was 16 of 32 for 109 yards in the team's opening, 14-7 win over Bowie State. The Bears have never faced a Football Bowl Subdivision team.
After Morgan State, the Terps will travel to West Virginia to face another sophomore quarterback, Geno Smith, who completed 20 of 27 passes for 216 yards in a win last week over Coastal Carolina.
Maryland coaches like what they've seen of the defense so far. Tate's performance earned him the Football Writers Association of America/Bronko Nagurski National Defensive Player of the Week
Said Brown: "That's the guy we kind of envisioned that we would have. "
Tate agreed that he has matured.
But some habits die hard. In eighth grade, Tate needed to eat something before a football game. His mother made him a couple jelly sandwiches. He played so well in that middle-school game that he never wanted to break the routine.
He still hasn't. Only now he fixes the sandwiches himself.