If you don’t go to a lot of high school football games, you forget that we benefit tremendously from the elevated perspective at a college or pro affair. Many venues, like Baltimore’s Gilman School, offer spectators little more than a couple bleacher row’s relief from the chaos of being field-level. Football is a messy, complex and frenetic ballet, even at the prep level. It’s impossible to read everything happening in real-time, much less when everything is happening on a single level plane of vision.
It was at Gilman, at field level, that I first saw Kenny Tate play football. I did not need a good seat to realize that Tate was a special football player.
The day I saw Kenny Tate play in 2007, he was in DeMatha white, blue and red, and the Stags actually dropped a rare contest to Gilman. Despite the losing team effort, Tate’s talent jumped off the field. A wide receiver/defensive back/kick returner who found a way to get involved in every snap, it was not a shock that Tate had by then rocketed into the ESPN 150.
Tate’s journey at Maryland has been more fluid than his success at DeMatha, which at times has served as Maryland’s unofficial feeder system. Stepping into College Park as a true freshman, Tate was switched to defense and special teams in order to see the field as a true freshman, despite being a top-20 receiving prospect nationally. Ahead of Tate on the receiver depth chart were a couple of guys who would do okay for themselves at wideout: Torrey Smith and Darrius Heyward-Bey.
As a frosh, Tate was switiching from an offensive to a defensive mindset, as well as learning defensive coordinator Chris Cosh’s 3-3-5 scheme. Then, the Terps hired Don Brown to take over the defense and install the 4-3, in which Tate played strong safety as a sophomore and free safety as a junior. After an abysmal 2009 campaign, Tate’s ascension to full-time starter and All-Conference free safety was integral to Maryland’s 2010 turnaround. He ball-hawked, he hit and made plays. The one-time wideout prospect was the oversized Ed Reed incarnate.
Of course, like any story within Maryland football, everything goes to pieces after 2010. Ralph Friedgen and Brown are gone and Todd Bradford moves Tate to outside linebacker. Things look bright for a moment, then in October during some of the darkest days in Maryland football history, Tate suffered a season-ending knee injury that required surgery. Mercifully, he was granted a medical redshirt for 2012 after playing in four games during the 2011 campaign.
When the news broke that Tate would seek medical hardship and be done for the year, two comments from the ever-poignant college football commenteriat on the Washington Post’s Terrapins Insider blog. The top comment reads simply: “Why in the world would he want to come back to this?” The other notes that “if Edsall has ANY SENSE at all, he will move Tate back to safety.”
Kenny Tate has seen the highs Maryland Terrapin football can bring. He’s played in bowl games, been on every watch list for his position and brought double-digit win totals to Byrd Stadiums. He was also in the eye of the storm during 2011 and bore the brunt of the football gods’ cruelty during last year’s nightmare season. Perhaps it wasn’t cruelty, but mercy. A medical redshirt for Tate, if he still has any juice in his knee, may give him another chance at the senior season such a phenomenal player works for.
There’s no comparing Maryland’s 2011 to Penn State’s by any stretch, but it’s worth noting that Tate was considering Penn State when he was recruited by Friedgen in 2008. It’s also worth noting that Randy Edsall, a Pennsylvania native, was at one time being talked about as a potential Paterno successor.
In 20011 Edsall pulled the surnames off the back of Maryland’s uniforms. For Edsall, it was about honoring the university, the team, the tradition. Nobody’s bigger than the program, and that’s an important lesson learned in the wake of the horror at State College. However, Bill O’Brien, breaking tradition, is putting the names of Penn State’s players back on their jerseys this fall. He wants to acknowledge the guys who didn’t transfer, who were willing to play through the scrutiny, the sanctions and the pain.
Edsall is doing the same thing, but obviously it’s a lesser trauma the guys who stuck around had to endure. Maryland had a mass exodus, thankfully because of a rocky regime change and not a series of horrific crimes. But number six will wear “Tate” proudly on the back of his jersey September 1st, provided his knee is ready to go. He’ll be doing it at outside linebacker, under his fourth defensive coordinator Brian Stewart.
If everything goes as it should have in 2011 for Kenny Tate, he’ll hear his name called by an NFL club on a weekend in April 2013. He’ll have seen the nadir and possibly the apex of all Maryland football can be. He’ll have certainly earned the name on the back of the jersey, because he was willing to come back to this.
“Shell Game” is season-long a chronicle of Maryland football’s recovery from its disastrous 2011 campaign. The University of Maryland athletic department chose to deny our request for access. It was probably a wise move.