COLLEGE PARK — — It was four years, three defensive coordinators, two head coaches and one knee surgery ago that Kenny Tate took his spot on Maryland's kick-return team and watched as the ball was kicked high into the warm, late-summer air to begin his freshman season.
He already had an NFL body but seemed young, even for a first-year college player. For the first time in his life, he 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.
Tate, now a fifth-year linebacker trying to return to All-Atlantic Coast Conference form this season, knew he faced an adjustment to bridge the deep chasm between high school and major college football. But he couldn't have fathomed what would unfold. He couldn't have imagined all the position switches — from a high school wide receiver, to an All-ACC safety, to a hybrid linebacker-safety and, this season, to strong-side linebacker.
He couldn't have foreseen the coaching changes — three defensive coordinators in the past three years — or the toll on his 6-foot-4, 220-pound body. Last season was a blur of procedures to drain a repeated buildup of fluid in his injured right knee. He played in only the first four games and obtained a redshirt so he could return for a fifth year following surgery. Not medically cleared to fly, he drove to North Carolina State to watch Maryland's final game of 2011, the team's eighth straight loss. "I just wanted to see my team," he said. "I just wanted to be there for the last one."
Tate — who speaks softly and can seem introverted off the field — is a different man than the one who began his career on special teams in the 2008 opener against Delaware. When the first kick went up, the Byrd Stadium crowd roared and Tate remembers thinking: "It doesn't get any better than this."
He is a little more sober about football now. While he still loves the sport and his teammates, his experiences have reinforced that the game is also a business. He seems more keenly aware that nothing about his future is guaranteed.
"You could have a coach one day and not have the coach the next day," Tate said after a recent practice. "You could lose your position coach. There are a lot of things that can happen. You get new teammates every year, you lose some teammates. I feel like this was a lesson learned on just how to deal with everything so that it's not a surprise at the next level. Everybody grows in some different way."
Long considered a promising NFL prospect, Tate's adversity makes him a little like the humbled, star-crossed Roy Hobbs from "The Natural" movie who exclaims: "My life didn't turn out the way I expected."
He has endured by not losing sight of his ultimate goal — the NFL. Asked if he would hope to be a pro linebacker or switch back to safety, Tate smiled and said: "I'll let the team decide."
He said his teammates' encouragement helped sustain him during his rehabilitation from knee surgery. He has a soft brace on his knee but says it doesn't hinder him. He is wearing his familiar No. 6 on the practice field, towering above his fellow linebackers.
"The mental battle was probably not being out there with my fellow teammates and just not playing. That was probably one of the hardest things," Tate said. "When I'm in the training room and I was rehabbing, everybody was encouraging me, everybody was waiting for me to get back. That was definitely a motivation."
Tate was recruited by former Maryland assistant coach James Franklin from DeMatha, where he starred in football and basketball. He chose Maryland over Illinois, Ohio State and other schools.
Franklin hooked Tate partly by showing him a PowerPoint presentation on how the Terps could be expected to spread the ball around to a variety of receivers. But Tate and his parents were summoned by then-coach Ralph Friedgen soon after camp began and asked whether he was willing to switch to defense — to safety — for the benefit of the team. He agreed.
Tate, an American studies major who expects to graduate in December, moved into a dormitory suite with Davin Meggett, Cameron Chism, Kerry Boykins, Ben Pooler and Torrey Smith. All but Boykins are gone now.
His roommates and others used to describe his athletic talents as "freakish." In 2010 — his junior season — he was an athletic, imposing safety who was first-team All-ACC and was the first Maryland defensive back since Tony Jackson in 2000 to reach 100 tackles. Tate would rattle opponents by creeping from his safety position close to the line. In 2011, he was switched by coach Randy Edsall to a hybrid linebacker-safety position called "Star."
Tate's Maryland career has included key plays in some of the team's most memorable games.
In the opening game of 2010, Tate slammed into Ricky Dobbs before the Navy quarterback could cross the goal line on fourth-and-1. There were just 37 seconds remaining when the play began, and Maryland ran out the clock on a 17-14 victory. Last season, Tate ended Miami's final, desperation drive with an interception in a 32-24 win.
Under coordinator Todd Bradford, Maryland ranked last in the conference in defense in 2011, surrendering an average of 34.2 points and 457.2 yards per game. Bradford was replaced in the offseason by Brian Stewart, who is implementing a 3-4 defense.
During down times, Tate occasionally consulted with Bill McGregor, his former DeMatha coach.
"Naturally, he was disappointed at times," McGregor said. "We would talk. You just walk him through it. But you know he will respond in a very, very positive way. At DeMatha, he was our superstar."
Maryland, which was forced by injuries last season to rush young defensive players into games, returns 10 of the unit's 11 starters.
"I think that with the things we want to do defensively, I think the opportunities for [Tate] are going to be there, so we have high expectations," Edsall said.
Once again, it feels like a new chapter for Tate — a new coordinator and a new system. But he said he never lost faith in his ability, and that his current linebacker position isn't so much different than his former one. "It allows me to make plays. I've been doing the same thing I've [always] been doing," Tate said.
His pregame habits are unchanged, too. He still eats two jelly sandwiches — a routine he has followed since middle school. "Every game," he said. "Always."