The University of Maryland football team has had its fair share of talented players over the years. Darius Heyward-Bey, Vernon Davis, and now Stefon Diggs are just some of the players that excited Maryland fans on Saturday afternoons. Aside from Diggs, Maryland has lacked in dynamic playmakers. Heyward-Bey had speed, Davis had strength, but neither had the ability to make something out of nothing like Diggs can.
In the class of 2005, there was a Diggs caliber playmaker. This recruit was a relatively unknown three star running back by the name of Steve Slaton. The three star running back from Fairless Hills, PA was ranked the 27th best player in Pennsylvania according to Scouts. He had offers from North Carolina, Rutgers, West Virginia, and Maryland, and had interest from other ACC and Big Ten schools.
The Pennsylvania product thought he had ended his recruiting when he committed to Ralph Freidgen and the Maryland Terrapins. Slaton was excited to join the Terrapins, he mentioned having a collection of turtles in an interview after he committed.
Back in College Park were two young running backs: Keon Lattimore and Lance Ball who were freshman when Slaton committed. Set to join Slaton in the 2005 class was four star running back Morgan Green from White Plains, MD. Recruiting and scouting is a tough part of a coaches job, it isn’t easy to tell what players will turn out to be great and which ones will fade out. Some five star prospects don’t work out, and some two star prospects end up being top players. Unfortunately for Maryland, this ended up being the case for Maryland.
Coach Friedgen made a tough decision, and one that ended up costing Maryland big. Despite having given a verbal commitment to Maryland, Coach Friedgen withdrew the scholarship offer for Steve Slaton. The Pennsylvania running back was back on the market, and after being spurned by his first choice school, he took his talents to their neighboring rival, West Virginia.
Before we get into the what-if portion, I wanted to point out how terrible this move was from a reputation stand point. It is one thing to cut a player if they do not perform well, a player should be given a chance to prove himself to the team and the coaches. For a coach to pull a scholarship offer after a player committed because they felt they were full at the position is a bad move and sends the wrong message to future recruits. Similar to how poorly it looks when a player backs out of a verbal commitment, pulling an offer from a committed player looks just as bad.
Steve Slaton not only went on to torch Maryland two times while playing for West Virginia, he became a Heisman hopeful. The three star running back displayed the moves and quickness of a five star game changer. Playing with dual threat quarterback Pat White helped him, but what Slaton was able to do on the field was unbelievable and rare to find. From a viewer stand point, Slaton had the same ability that Diggs has now to excite fans. Every time Slaton got the ball it put you at the edge of your seat, anytime he had the ball he could make an entire defense look lost.
From 2005-2007, the seasons Steve Slaton would have played at Maryland, the Terps only playmaker on offense was Darius Heyward-Bey. But even then, inconsistent quarterback play prevented Maryland from being able to full utilize his ability. On the ground, Maryland had two strong backs who split the load, Keon Lattimore and Lance Ball. However, neither one of them presented the playmaking ability of Steve Slaton. They were good backs, but they never presented the threat and ability to make a big play.
Neither Lattimore or Ball rushed for 1,000 yards in a season. Ball had his most yards in 2005, when he finished with 903 yards on 189 carries for a 4.77 YPC. Slaton rushed for over 1,000 yards in all three of his seasons at West Virginia. His least productive season came in 2007 when he had 1,051 yards on 211 carries, edging out Ball with 4.98 YPC that year. In Ball’s 2005 season he only found the endzone 6 times, while Slaton scored 17 touchdowns. Lattimore’s most productive seasons were in 2006 and 2007. In 2006 he finished with 743 yards on 160 carries (4.64 YPC) and scored 3 touchdowns, he did add 210 yards on 20 receptions. In 2007, his carried the ball 50 more times, but only managed 62 more yards, and his production in the passing game decreased with 95 yards coming on 21 receptions. Slaton’s best season came in 2006 when finished with an incredible 1,744 yards on 248 carries (7.03 YPC) and scored 16 touchdowns, while also adding 360 yards on 12 receptions and 2 touchdowns.
Slaton’s production would have been greatly welcomed on the 2005-2007 Terrapins. The 2005 Terps featured first round pick Vernon Davis, but they were not able to make a bowl game. Maryland finished with a 5-6 (3-5) record, and had two close loses that could have been flipped with the addition of Steve Slaton. Vs Clemson, Maryland lost 28-24, and in the season finale with the winner going to a bowl game, Maryland lost at North Carolina State 20-14.
The 2006 season was Maryland’s best season during this period, they finished 8-4 (5-3) and made the Champs Sports Bowl. But if you remember correctly, from an earlier what-if, Maryland lost to Boston College and Wake Forest to miss a chance at the ACC Championship game. Mixed with Darius Heyward-Bey, Maryland would have had unbelievable speed on offense, and wouldn’t have struggled to score throughout the season. The 2006 season was Slatons most productive season, he provided more yards on less carries with more touchdowns than Ball and Lattimore combined. In the two big games at the end of the season, Slaton’s playmaking ability would have been a huge spark to get the Terps to an ACC Title game.
In 2007, Slaton’s production decreased, but West Virginia also added Noel Devine this season. The Slaton, Devine, White trio was unstoppable out of the back field this season. With Ball’s production continuing a downward trend and Lattimore not increasing his production despite getting more touches, Maryland went 6-6 (3-5) and lost to Oregon State in the Emerald Nuts Bowl. Maryland’s fate could have been altered had they not lost 18-17 to Virginia and 16-13 at North Carolina. The offensive struggles would have been helped with a running back who could carry a big load while providing instant offense a la Steve Slaton.
What if Maryland doesn’t pull Steve Slaton’s offer and has him from 2005-2007? For starters Maryland would have been a lot more fun to watch. In 2005, instead of missing a bowl for the second straight season, Maryland would have finished 7-4 and made a bowl game. In the 2006 season, a sophomore Slaton and Freshman Heyward-Bey would have completed a ten win season and made the ACC Championship game. The strong performance would carry over to the 2007 campaign, that would have finished 8-4 instead of 6-6.
A major turning point in the Friedgen era, had Maryland made three bowl games and won the ACC Championship once, Friedgen would have bought himself more time in College Park. The Maryland alum, would have justified his big contract, while also establishing Maryland as an exciting football team. Vernon Davis, Darius Heyward-Bey, and Steve Slaton all going in the first round of their respective drafts while being relevant nationwide would have become a major recruiting selling point for Friedgen. Maryland would be established as a competitor in the ACC and an NFL factory.
There is still the question of if Coach Freidgen could strike gold twice. Slaton wasn’t a highly ranked recruit, if everyone knew what he would become, then everyone would have wanted him. Maryland was one of the few schools who saw something in him, but even then Maryland didn’t see what he would become and picked a different player. Would Coach Friedgen have been able to find another dynamic and under the radar player? Would he now turn his attention to nation five and four star players, and if so would he have been able to reel in enough of them? Slaton was a rare gem of a three star recruit, there aren’t enough of them to justify to the fanbase a continued focus on under the radar recruiting. With the success in 2005-2007, the fanbase and alumni would be looking at Friedgen to go after the top football players nationally.
As it turns out Friedgen picked wrong in the decision to take Morgan Green or Steve Slaton. The West Virginia running back torched Maryland every chance he got, along with leading West Virginia to the top of the Big East and a top ten ranking. Friedgen and the Terps lingered around a mediocre level before finally hitting rock bottom in 2010 with a 2-10 season. Slaton would have turned Maryland into a house hold name, but what Friedgen did with this new identity would be a bigger question.