It's hard to explain the level of excitement that I have for the Maryland Terrapin football team this fall. I'm not expecting them to win a National Championship, or to challenge for an ACC title even, but I do expect them to be much more competitive week in and week out than they showed during their 2-10 season in 2011. I'm not sure how much better they will be this year than last, but I do anticipate the Terps to be playing a lot more meaningful football towards the end of games. Coming off a year of blowout losses, that's a refreshing proposition . . .
That's how I originally planned to start my Maryland football preview, but then the injury gods decided they wanted to target the Terps exclusively, and things have changed a little bit. Starting quarterback C.J. Brown is out for the year after suffering a knee injury, and Maryland's prospects at the position are a little bit slim. But that doesn't mean there won't be good storylines and surprises this year from the Terps. With that in mind, here are five big things that I am interested to see this year.
We all know how important the quarterback position is to a football team, and with Brown getting taken out for the year, the Terps are going to be in a lot of trouble. While their wasn't any certainty with that position when Brown was still healthy, there was some optimism, and that is a little bit harder to come by now. I'm not sure I've ever seen a depth chart quite as thin as the Maryland quarterbacks will be this season. Does that mean that there won't be a player that steps up and impresses? Does that mean that the position won't eventually sort itself out, and the Terps will find a quality starter? No; but the chances of the quarterback being a position of strength, while not definite before, have taken a pretty serious hit.
The top two names on the most recent depth chart, Perry Hills and Caleb Rowe, are both true freshman. They do have some potential, but neither one was a world-beater or incredible prospect coming out of high school, so it is a little bit difficult to envision them coming in and setting the world on fire. Perry Hills is currently atop the depth chart, which is a good thing because his skill-set is pretty similar to Brown's in that he has the ability to run the ball out of the pocket. Rowe is a little bit more of a traditional drop-back passer, and it will be interesting to see if Randy Edsall sticks with one guy or the other, or if the quarterback job is similar to last year's in that it is a week to week decision.
The third quarterback on the depth chart wasn't even playing the position a year ago. Devin Burns was a pretty highly recruited athlete out of high school, but the coaches elected to switch him to WR when he enrolled. He could provide a unique look if he ever sees the field. But as it stands right now, there isn't a single player on the three-deep depth chart who sat in during quarterback meetings a year ago. That will be a difficult and unique position for the Terps, and it will be interesting to see how they handle it.
Davin Meggett was nothing if not consistent for the Terps last year, and his departure leaves a pretty gaping hole in the Terrapin backfield. The starter heading into camp is Justus Pickett, who showed explosiveness, but was largely disappointing his freshman year. Behind Pickett is Brandon Ross, another question mark. Will Pickett be able to take the few steps and become a feature back, or will it be a position by committee.
What I am really looking forward to is watching the true freshmen that are currently ranked pretty low on the initial depth charts. Wes Brown and Albert Reid have the ability to come in and contribute to the Terps right away, especially considering the uncertainty at their position. Brown is a grown man. He runs north-south extremely effectively, but he has a surprising amount of wiggle and unexpected speed when he gets into the open field. I don't know that he can outrun the defense at the ACC level, but he could go far a lot of 15-yard gains when other backs would have gotten five.
Reid is a classic scat back who can contribute in the running game and the passing game. He is very elusive and tough to bring down in the open field, and he shows great speed when he gets out in the open. I'm not sure if redshirting is part of the plan for either of these guys, but if they make it to the roster, I expect them to make a pretty noticeable difference.
Those aren't the only two freshmen that I am keeping an eye on of course. Randy Edsall had a fairly impressive first recruiting class considering his on the field results, and it is always exciting to get a first look at guys you have only seen on grainy highlight tapes. Can Roman Braglio take advantage of a scheme shift that seems to fit his style of play perfectly? Will any of the linebackers that Coach Edsall brought in, particularly Abner Logan, be able to break through now that demand at the position is that much higher? How will Johnny Holliday choose to pronounce Amba Etta-Tawo?
But let's be honest, we're all most excited to see Stefon Diggs. Simply put, Diggs is on a different level as an athlete and a prospect than we are accustomed to seeing in a Maryland uniform. Torrey Smith and Darrius Heyward-Bey were certainly explosive during their time in College Park, but neither of those players was expected to be as productive when they first arrived on campus. Stefon Diggs doesn't have to develop into a star player, he is one right now. On the other hand, it is difficult to expect anything from a true freshman before ever seeing them in pads. But I've seen Diggs a number of times in person during his high school career, and the guy has speed that should translate immediately.
His versatility is what sets him apart though. If this was a video game and I could turn fatigue off, I would line Diggs up at receiver, use him in the backfield, have him return punts and kicks, and slot put him at corner in the secondary. He was the All-Met Defensive Player of the Year as a senior. That's impressive physical talent that we haven't seen in a Maryland jersey in some time. I'm very excited to see where he is as a player right away, but truthfully, I'm even more excited to see what he can become.
New defensive coordinator Brian Stewart is bringing a new 3-4 defense to the Maryland Terrapins that should put a greater emphasis on pressuring the quarterback than we saw under Todd Bradford last year. But the 3-4 calls for a different type of personnel at nearly every position in the front 7, and that is something that takes a little while to transition to without the right players. Joe Vellano was an absolute beast as a defensive tackle last year, can he make as much of an impact as a defensive end who is largely responsible for occupying blockers? Do the Terps have the horses at outside ‘backer to effectively get to the quarterback, which is basically the keystone of this type of defense.
The biggest change I'm hoping to see in the Maryland Terrapins this year is in their coaching staff and the way that they approach a game. I get the feeling that Randy Edsall was never totally satisfied with Todd Bradford and Gary Crowton as his two main coordinators last year, and their performance last year really validated all the skepticism that fans had when those hires were made. I can't even think of an adjective to describe the way that the defense played under Bradford because I'm not even sure what they were trying to accomplish. That is the big change I expect to see under Stewart, I expect the defense to have purpose, at the very least. Stewart described his defense as an aggressive one after joining the team, and I think fans everywhere would be excited to see the defense return to its form under Don Brown from a couple years ago.
Mike Locksley isn't known for his offensive genius, but he does have a gameplan that should fit our talent, as I mentioned before. The biggest problem that Gary Crowton had is that he refused to alter his system to fit the talent of the team he inherited. He also had an unhealthy obsession with bubble screens, which I have yet to fully understand. Locksley should bring an offense that is a little bit more exotic than Crowton's, but if nothing else, it is built to let the players succeed. Let's also not forget that Locksley is largely (though not entirely) responsible for some of the new toys that he'll be able to play with on offense.
The biggest change that I and other Maryland fans are hoping to see, however, surely comes with the head of the program Randy Edsall. Despite the rough transition that was the 2011 season, I still believe that Randy Edsall can be an effective coach for this football team. But we have to start seeing signs of that this year. The team has been gutted of players that don't want to play his way, and re-stocked with players from his first recruiting class. The team isn't entirely "his guys" yet, but we are headed in that direction, and that should provide some improvement in terms of on-field performance.
I am also curious about how Randy Edsall handles himself with the media this year. I had a lot of moments and comments that made you scratch your head, and it will be interesting to see if a full year of scrutiny at a major program has taught him anything about what should and shouldn't say. I don't think he'll ever be as good as Mark Turgeon, who handles the media like a dream; but there is room for improvement. Of course, if the Terps are winning, than very few will care about what he has to say in the press conference after the game. Randy Edsall needs to win this Maryland Terrapin fan base over, and while on-field performance is certainly the largest part of that process, it isn't the only part.
Like I said at the top - I'm not sure how much better in terms of wins and losses this team is going to be this year. But I do expect them to be better. And if you throw some flashes of brilliance and maybe an upset here or there, that's really all you can ask for coming off last season.