num­bers game

In col­lege foot­ball, dig­its are cov­eted

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. - BY PA­TRICK STEVENS

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)

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