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Old 04-22-2005, 03:56 AM  
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Draft: Terps' defensive stars dominate draft day

Nice read from an independent student paper.

Terps' defensive stars dominate draft day
Merriman, Foxworth likely to go on Day 1

By David Selig
April 22, 2005

When former Terrapin defensive end Shawne Merriman’s name is called tomorrow at the NFL Draft, he may become the earliest Terp selected in more than 20 years.

Either way, with him and cornerback Domonique Foxworth expected to be selected on the first day, a trend of Terp defensive players going early in the draft will continue.

Last year, cornerback Madieu Williams, defensive tackle Randy Starks and linebacker Leon Joe were all picked in the first four rounds. In 2003, linebacker E.J. Henderson went in the second round, and in the prior two drafts, defensive tackles Charles Hill and Kris Jenkins were selected before the end of the third round.

The trend is so strong that the Kansas City Chiefs — a team in search of defensive help — sent head coach Dick Vermeil, defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham and President/CEO Carl Peterson to the Terps’ pre-draft workouts last month.

“Their head football coach knows what he’s doing,” said Cunningham, after watching 15 draft-eligible players showcase their talent.

But Ralph Friedgen, an offensive-minded head coach, may not be the main reason the Terps have produced NFL-ready defensive playmakers.

“I give [defensive coordinator Gary] Blackney all the credit,” Foxworth said. “He doesn’t get enough credit around here, I don’t believe. One of the staples of this program has been good defense, even this past season when we didn’t have a good [record].”

Blackney deflects praise for preparing players for the pros, but he believes his defensive packages, coverages and blitzes are similar to ones played in the NFL.

“We try to play an aggressive, attacking-style defense, which is a lot of fun for players to be part of,” Blackney said. “They don’t like sitting there reading, they like to be aggressive. It’s a fun kind of system and I think our players have flourished in it.”

It’s hard to say that Merriman — who weighs more than 250 pounds, runs a 4.6 40-yard dash and has a 40-inch vertical leap — would struggle in any defense. But the Terps have made him more attractive to NFL teams by using his raw talent at the LEO position, a hybrid of the defensive end and linebacker roles.

He has been able to show teams footage of him playing on and off the line, and that buzz caused more than 70 team representatives to swarm the Terps pre-draft workout even with Foxworth not participating in drills.

Thanks to the New England Patriots’ recent success, the 3-4 defense has had a revival in the NFL. Versatile players like Merriman, who can fit the similar hybrid role played by Willie McGinest, are a hot commodity.

“My position is very high on the charts,” Merriman said. “I just hope I’m the first one to go.”

Indications are that he might. Widely considered the pre-eminent draft expert, ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. ranks Merriman as the 15th best prospect.

Cunningham, whose Chiefs have the 15th overall selection, agrees Merriman won’t be waiting too long to hear his name called.

“Merriman plays in a tough position to make a lot of plays, but for the position he plays in college and the amount of plays he makes, it’s incredible,” he said.

The Dallas Cowboys — who are led by McGinest’s first pro coach Bill Parcells — have reportedly been interested in Merriman, as have the San Diego Chargers, who play a 3-4 scheme.

Chad Scott was the last Terp to be selected in the first round, when the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted the cornerback 24th in 1997. In 1984, defensive end Pete Koch and guard Ron Solt were chosen 16th and 19th, respectively.

For Merriman, it doesn’t matter which team drafts him or how they use his talent, “as long as they’ll let me hit somebody.”

Merriman isn’t the only Terp with rising stock.

Foxworth said he has gone from a third-round pick to probably somewhere near the first round with a strong showing at the Indianapolis combine. He ran an eye-opening 4.34-second 40-yard dash and has been contacted by all 32 teams.

“You didn’t notice him too much on game tape until he ran at the combine,” Cunningham said. “He came out of nowhere to be a viable candidate to be a fairly high selection.”

Foxworth follows a path similar to the one Madieu Williams took before last year’s draft. Hardly a star player with the Terps, Williams improved his stock with raw athleticism at pre-draft workouts and was picked in the second round.

Williams went on to play a significant role in the Cincinnati Bengals’ defensive backfield because of injuries.

“I think if [Foxworth] got into the right situation that he’s poised enough and he’s enough of a technician that he would have an outstanding opportunity [to start],” Blackney said. “If not he will probably play in nickel-and-dime situations and special teams situations until he earns his spurs.”

Friedgen said he doesn’t want his former players to get their hopes too high and be subject to disappointment in case NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue doesn’t announce their names in the first few hours.

But the Terps are proud of the reputation they are building.

“It’s just a lot of fun to see all these guys prosper and be able to go on to the next level and achieve,” Blackney said. “Hopefully this will help us to continue recruiting high-quality players on the defensive side of the ball. You start to develop a reputation for players coming into your system and being prepared to go on to the next level.”
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