In college football, digits are coveted
Alex Wujciak required little time to ascertain one of the stark realities of playing football at Maryland.
With the Terrapins, there really is a numbers game every year.
The sophomore found out the day he arrived on campus, a No. 59 jersey deposited in his locker courtesy of equipment manager Ron Ohringer. On that day, he started the season-long wait so many of his teammates encountered to secure the digits they had designs on.
After putting in his time, he finally secured what he wanted all along: No. 33.
“My dad wore No. 66 in college when he played at Notre Dame,” Wujciak says. “I couldn’t wear 66 as a linebacker, so I just took half of his number.”
Wujciak’s tale is representative of a team with players both obsessed with numerology and hardly aware of their numbers at all. Some have switched numbers nearly every season; others, such as center Edwin Williams, are in their fifth year in their current threads.
Yet it still is one more thing for the man in charge of the program to set a policy for a seemingly insignificant detail that becomes more prevalent each year.
Maryland’s secondary tiebreak- ing factors include academic performance and, if it exists, a large disparity in playing time. But in most cases, the player with the longest tenure in the program receives his pick.
“It probably hurts me in recruiting that I do that,” coach Ralph Friedgen says. “I have seniority [set up]. If a kid wants a number and he’s a senior, he gets a number. I’ve had a lot of hotshot recruits want a number, and if it’s available, yeah. If it’s not available, they have to wait their turn.”
There is considerable demand for single digits, a trend visible throughout all of college football. Friedgen, not wanting any more headaches when determining special teams than necessary, tries to avoid duplicate numbers.
That might make Nos. 1-9 an even more coveted prizes.
“Single digits show a lot,” Williams says. “If you’re a singledigit guy, you have to be a really good player. I like the 70s for offensive linemen, but 6-0, I think I’m kind of marketing that and making that a big-time number these days. Hopefully, one day I’ll see the kids with the 60. Probably not, though, but it’s all good.”
While Williams remained true to his number for his entire career, others are more antsy. And that makes Ohringer a popular man, especially with younger players looking to move on from their random assignments.
Ohringer faces some challenges. He can’t hand out the retired numbers of 28 (Bob Ward), 62 (Jack Scarbath) and 94 (Randy White), and there’s no way to guarantee dig- its in the future. But that doesn’t stop players from pleading early and often.
“Some of them will come to me in the fall and see what seniors are graduating, and we break down what numbers they want,” Ohringer says. “Usually after recruiting, I sit down with Coach Friedgen and he’ll make the ultimate decision.”
A winner in that system was wide receiver Adrian Cannon, who requested No. 7 from his high school days during the recruiting process and was told to get in line. J.P. Humber already had it, and a pair of players already in the program — linebacker Moise Fokou and wideout Danny Oquendo — had their eyes on it, too.
But Humber graduated and Fokou (48) and Oquendo (17) grew either to appreciate or tolerate their numbers, and Cannon wound up a happy man last season.
“No. 7, that’s my grandma’s favorite number,” Cannon says. “That’s how it started off, and not too many receivers wear No. 7, so it’s different. I just kept it, and to this day I love it.”
Wide receiver LaQuan Williams took over No. 3 this season, an attempt to continue a tradition of Baltimore products wearing the digit. Earlier this decade, Rob Abiamiri (2001-04) and Christian Varner (2005-07) had the number.
Safety Terrell Skinner has bounced from 23 to 85 to 10 to 1 thanks to seniority and a position switch. Then there’s cornerback Kevin Barnes, who can be spotted with a big No. 2 chain dangling from his neck.
“In my opinion, the two greatest college corners of all time were Deion Sanders and Charles Woodson,” Barnes says. “That’s basically where I got it. I want to be the next one.”
But not everyone is so fortunate. Walk-on linebacker Alex Schultz wore No. 45 the last two seasons. In an attempt to avoid a duplicate jersey (tight end Tommy Galt also wears 45), Ohringer bumped him up to 52 before camp.
It was a disappointment to Schultz, who wanted to finish his career in the same number he started. Plus, his family already owned plenty of No. 45 apparel that suddenly lost some luster.
“I wasn’t really happy about it at first,” Schultz says. “I think 52 looks like a real awkward number, and I was really getting hooked on 45. Of course, everybody in my family [knows me as] 45. I have a really big family, so I had to tell a lot of people about it.”
At least 52 is still indicative of Schultz’s position. Freshman Masengo Kabongo received an even harsher welcome to the season when he arrived to discover he didn’t have a number in the 90s — the long-time bastion of the defensive line. Instead, he was handed No. 65. “Actually, that’s probably the last number I would want to have,” Kabongo says. “I hate that number, but it was given to me so I’m wearing it. It could be the worst number a defensive lineman can possibly have.”
Perhaps he could try to swing a deal. That was linebacker Chase Bullock’s strategy, who wore 42 the last four seasons even as he tried to plot a way to secure his high school number, 44.
Former Terps tailback Lance Ball, though, wouldn’t budge — despite the occasional offer of $100 or $200.
“I tried to bribe him a couple times, but he wouldn’t give it up,” says Bullock, who finally took over No. 44 this season. “Multiple times. Every year, I’d bring it up to him.”
Bullock needed someone to move on, but Nolan Carroll still has a former teammate checking in on him. The cornerback, who had 82 in his wide receiver days, took over No. 14 when he moved over to defense.
It just so happened the guy who once threw passes to him, Sam Hollenbach, has an eye on how he’s doing.
“Every time I see him, it’s like ‘Are you taking care of my number?’ “ Carroll says. “I tell him I am. ‘As long as you do something good with it.’ I say ‘I got you.’ “
Friedgen occasionally is forced into deep discussions over digits. He recalls how quarterback Josh Portis wanted a number that was already taken when he transferred from Florida before settling for the No. 12 he still wears today.
“[I said] ‘If I take somebody’s jersey away and give it to you, what do you think they’re going to think of you?’ “ Friedgen said. “You don’t want to come in here and upset people right away. You want to come in and blend in and come be a leader. If you’re here long enough, the number will probably come available and it did. It couldn’t have been that important, right?”
In at least that case, it ultimately was not more than just a number.
Da’Rel Scott (23); Darrius Heyward-Bey (8); Kevin Barnes (2) Jamari McCollough (4); Dave Philistin (34); Dan Gronkowski (13)