It's no secret that Maryland's football program had a terrible season in 2011. Coming off a 9-4 year that included a Military Bowl thumping of East Carolina, the Terps had a great young quarterback in Danny O'Brien, an aggressive defense led by Don Brown, and a fiery young offensive coordinator in James Franklin. That was all just a little more than a year ago.
Athletic Director Kevin Anderson fired Ralph Friedgen, a move that was questionable to some but wasn't completely without reason - Anderson basically said he felt Friedgen couldn't get the program to the top level. With the backing of Under Armour and what appeared to be an A.D. with real title aspirations, speculation quickly turned to Mike Leach. That, of course, didn't work out, and the Terps ended up with Randy Edsall (in a similar twist for Edsall's defensive coordinator search, Randy Shannon was rumored to be the hire until Maryland ended up with Southern Miss's Todd Bradford).
Franklin, who was previously the head-coach-in-waiting, left for the head job at Vanderbilt, where he has somehow managed to begin building an actual football program. Defensive Coordinator Brown left for the same job at Connecticut, Edsall's old school.
The 2011 season actually started out well for Maryland. They recorded an opening-game win at home against Miami before losing all ten of their other games against FBS opponents. Edsall stayed around, but Bradford and offensive coordinator Gary Crowton were sacked after horrific seasons with the program. And, of course, there were the transfers. Over a dozen players left the program, including O'Brien, left tackle Max Garcia, and right tackle R.J. Dill.
But we're here to talk about this season, right? Let's not worry too much about 2011 anymore.
Brian Stewart is the new defensive coordinator for the Terps, and brings a new scheme with him from Houston. Stewart is a former NFL coordinator (with the Dallas Cowboys in 2007 and 2008) and in his time there led an aggressive defense that was known for stockpiling sacks, in large part thanks to the play of DeMarcus Ware.
Stewart runs a 3-4 defense, which is new, but the aggression and reliance on blitzing linebackers is reminiscent of Brown's scheme two years ago. The defensive line was supposed to be the strongest unit on the team, with experience and talent in a three-tackle starting group of Joe Vellano, A.J. Francis, and Andre Monroe, but Monroe hurt his knee this past week and will miss the entire season. Monroe's likely back-ups, Isaiah Ross and Keith Bowers, are also hurt, so it looks like Darius Kilgo will start with Vellano and Francis. Either way, it's a strong unit and should help anchor the transition to the new scheme.
At linebacker, Kenny Tate is still there, but he hurt his knee and will be out for 3 to 4 weeks. Alex Twine was supposed to compete for that starting job anyway, so he should be able to fill in well. Demetrius Hartsfield should lead the unit - he's a special talent and has a ton of experience - and Darin Drakeford is another great weapon. Lorne Goree, who played very well as a back-up last year, and Cole Farrand, a surprise on top of the depth chart, should battle it out for the last starting spot in the middle.
In the secondary, there are more temporary injuries - starting strong safety Matt Robinson will miss the season opener, cornerback Isaac Goins will be out for a few weeks, and back-up safety A.J. Hendy is hurt. Goins was expected to compete for one of the starting jobs, but while he's out it looks like Jeremiah Johnson will join Dexter McDougle as the two starting corners. In Robinson's stead, true freshman Sean Davis will probably start and pair up with experienced senior Eric Franklin. The secondary is the only cause for worry for Maryland's defense, but when the three injured players come back it turns into an acceptable unit.
Even with the injuries, the defense is the strength of this team. There may be some growing pains moving to a 3-4, but they have a combination of talent and experience throughout and enough familiarity with an attacking, blitzing style to expect a reasonably good season from them. The offense, however, is where it gets tricky.
After a disastrous year under Gary Crowton, the Terps made a good, if slightly risky hire in Mike Locksley. Locksley was the running backs and recruiting coordinator for Maryland ten years ago, before moving on to Florida and eventually Illinois, where he was a successful offensive coordinator. He then got his first head coaching gig, at New Mexico, which was a well documented disaster.
Locksley's strength is recruiting - he's simply one of the best in the country. He's shown that prowess already in his brief time at his second stint in College Park, helping land Stefon Diggs, Wes Brown, and Derwin Gray, among others. He still has an offense to run, and it's one that has a lot of talent, despite a lack of experience.
On the offensive line, Bennett Fulper is really the only guarantee. Fulper started a few games as a true freshman and has been a contributor his entire career, and this year will be the Terps' left guard. Justin Gilbert, playing right tackle, is also a good player who has done well as a starter, but has also had recurring knee problems and is no sure bet to stay healthy. Josh Cary, expected to start at right guard, is injured, but former four-star defensive line prospect De'Onte Arnett should fit in well in his absence. Sal Conaboy and Nick Klemm are the least experienced of the expected full-time starters, but Conaboy started two games last year and Klemm has been a solid performer off the bench. There's not much in depth behind them, but incoming freshmen Mike Madaras and Nick Brigham are both supremely talented players.
At running back, the Terps actually have a pretty good rotation of four. Justus Pickett was expected to be the starter, as he's the only one of the group who played last season. Pickett's an explosive talent who should get a lot of carries. Brown and Albert Reid are four-star incoming backs - Brown is a power back and Reid's more of a shifty type.
For pass catchers, Kevin Dorsey and Matt Furstenburg will probably be the most consistent options, as the feature receiver and top tight end, respectively. Diggs excelled in last week's scrimmage (with three total touchdowns) and will continue to climb up the depth chart, but for now the expected starting three are Dorsey, Kerry Boykins, and either Marcus Leak or Nigel King.
Unfortunately, it all comes back to the quarterback position. C.J. Brown, Maryland's expected starter and the only quarterback on the roster who's taken a collegiate snap behind center, tore his ACL and will miss the season. That means true freshman Perry Hills will be the Terps' starting quarterback, with fellow true freshman Caleb Rowe and converted wide receiver Devin Burns as his back-ups (Burns did play quarterback in high school and for a year at Maryland, but was a wide receiver last season). Hills is actually quite good, and is a similar kind of quarterback to Brown (read: run run run), but Maryland was certainly not planning to play him this soon.
Locksley's main asset, and the main reason behind his hire, is his recruiting ability. Don't dismiss his offenses, however - he did well at Illinois, and this backfield group is like a poor man's version of Juice Williams-Rashard Mendenhall- Arrelious Benn.
At the end of the day, Brown's injury irrevocably changes the dynamic of this team and this season. It takes them from a sleeper bowl contender to a team that would be lucky not to regress. Hills could very well be the future of this program, and he could even do well this year. It's just unreasonable to expect any true freshman quarterback who was handed the starting job two weeks before the season to succeed right away.
But succeeding right away is exactly what Maryland will need to do if they are going to have any sort of success this year. They open against William & Mary before a road game at Temple and a home contest against Edsall's old school, Connecticut. Those are their best three chances at a win, and looking at the conference schedule, a home game against Wake Forest and a trip to Chesnut Hill to face Boston College could hopefully be competitive.
That's a best-case scenario of five wins, with an outside chance of six if the Terps win a game or two that they're not supposed to. There is going to be a learning curve - new quarterback, new systems on both sides of the ball, and a boatload of injuries - but there is talent in this team. The hope is that talent can overcome the myriad of problems surrounding it.
Our official prediction? 3-9, with wins over William & Mary, Wake Forest and Boston College. Edsall stays for another year (if anything, the injuries help give him a little more leniency), and with another strong recruiting class and an improved young team, 2013 could be a good year. Let's make sure we get through this season first.