ON RED ALERT; Back-to-Back 5-6 Seasons without a Bowl Has Coach Ralph Friedgen and the Terps U

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Byline: Patrick Stevens, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

It once was so obvious what direction the Maryland football program was hurtling just a few years ago. Three straight 10-win seasons upon coach Ralph Friedgen's arrival suggested greater triumphs were ahead, and memories of the nadir known as the 1990s were long gone.

Except it didn't continue as everyone expected the last two seasons. Doubt usurped definitiveness. Fourth-quarter comebacks ceded to late-game giveaways. Losses mounted slightly more than wins, enough to doom the Terrapins to consecutive 5-6 seasons.

What is left, as the Terps prepare to open the season Saturday at Byrd Stadium against William & Mary, are all the usual preseason traits: hope, eagerness and optimism.

But perhaps the most curious element is the uncertainty about the team. Internally, it can be ascribed to things as concrete as the team's inexperience at wide receiver or as esoteric as wondering if the program can overcome its ill-timed knack for turnovers and penalties in the last two years.

Externally, the prodding - which grew more than it ever has under Friedgen last fall - is pointed. Is Maryland ready to resume a rise to perennial top-25 team, which seemed inevitable not that long ago? Or is it perched on the precipice of a return to the days when bowl bids were a once-in-a-decade proposition?

"There are still some questions about us and about our team," Friedgen said. "They're only going be answered after we play."

At the least, the Terps are better on paper than the last two years. They have a returning starter at quarterback (senior Sam Hollenbach) for the first time since 2003. They can, and will, unleash a posse of running backs two-at-a-time. And they boast what Friedgen believes is the program's deepest offensive line since he arrived.

On defense, the line remains intact after gradually improving last season. A group of athletic linebackers, which includes junior Wesley Jefferson, is prepared to take over a unit led by Butkus Award finalist D'Qwell Jackson the last two seasons.

It is a suddenly experienced group whose seasons have ended prematurely the last two years. Yet rather than adopting a defensive posture, the Terps accept that many outsiders don't know what to make of them, and that it their responsibility to prove how talented they are.

"I feel it's very fair," said junior free safety Christian Varner, one of seven returning starters on defense. "Two 5-6 seasons and, OK, you should question it. But as far as us being insiders, we know what we're capable of. We know we have a very athletic team, a very good team that made a lot of mental mistakes in the past that cost us games. That's part of growing pains."

Worries, however, remain. Maryland's wide receivers account for 23 career receptions, with sophomores Danny Oquendo and Isaiah Williams projected to start and redshirt freshman Darrius Heyward-Bey likely to play frequently. Injuries and defections have weakened the secondary, although senior cornerback Josh Wilson (right foot) is expected to play in the opener.

Yet if anything is clear, it is how the Terps define an acceptable season. …