Walking to the Gossett Team House I had the fortune to run into the man at the helm of this revived program: first year coach Randy Edsall. Edsall, who was hired in January, comes to the University of Maryland from UCONN, where he built the Huskies into a BCS program registering 2 Big East titles along the road (2007,2010).
From the clean-cut look to the shine on his shoes, it was easy to tell that he means business. In the few minutes that we were able to chat on our way to the player interviews, he really stressed the necessity of learning the new offense and the importance of staying healthy. I pointed out the difficulty of this upcoming season's schedule noting the first two games against Miami and West Virginia, as well as the games against blue blood programs like Notre Dame and Florida State, to which Edsall responded, We have the talent to beat all of the teams on our schedule. If we apply that talent to our new offense and show discipline on the field while staying healthy there's no reason we can't beat any of those teams. Such confidence and assurance in a once floundering program comes as a very positive change to the Terps faithful, who saw their football team go from the depths of DI football to within one win of the ACC Championship game last season.
However, it's not just the head coach position that has seen a change of face over the offseason, as the Terps have done almost a complete staff overhaul with 8 new members. After former offensive coordinator James Franklin left Maryland to take the head-coaching job at Vanderbilt, Maryland signed on Gary Crowton to fill the void. Crowton had spent the previous 3 seasons as the offensive coordinator at SEC powerhouse LSU. Then, after former defensive coordinator Don Brown left to take the same position at UCONN, the Terps snagged Todd Bradford, who had spent his last three seasons in the same position at Southern Mississippi.
This sense of change seemed to be the recurring theme throughout this first day of spring football. Everything from the players' attitudes to the way the dining hall was set up seemed different. The Young Dining Hall in the Gossett Team House was built around a new centerpiece: an enormous salad bar. Also, each table was furnished with a list of different nutrients, the foods that contained them, and how they each benefitted the body. As the media gathered inside and the players slowly made their way in, this already present feeling of change was one of the major topics discussed.
Even from the start of winter conditioning we could all tell things were different, said senior running back David Meggett, who led the team last year in rushing yards. Meggett was quick to point out that Edsall is, a very personable guy who always has his door open and who is always talking to us and getting to know us as both players and young men. Yet, Meggett and the other players present in the room all made it very clear that the new Edsall regime to this point has been marked by strictness. There's no earrings, no gum chewing, no cursing and your shoes are always tied, remarked senior defensive back Cameron Chism. Chism and his fellow senior defensive back, Trent Hughes, anchor a defense that was 39th overall in the country last season and returns 7 starters. Coach Edsall is running a tight ship around here. He has a vision of what he wants this team to be and he's making the changes, said Chism. Perhaps ACC Freshman of the Year, Quarterback Danny O'Brien, summed up the Terps new coach by saying, Coach Edsall is a guy who immediately demands our respect and he's definitely done that.
The players named the numerous changes that Edsall has made to the program off the field as well. I just know that I don't want to be the guy who is late to a meeting because Coach Edsall has some tough punishments like 5 A.M stadium runs and 300 reps of 20 on the step machine. And he follows through with all of these punishments too because he's a real man of his word, said O'Brien. Joe Vellano, a senior anchor on the defensive line, who had a stellar season last year, pointed out the differences in the time of meetings and workouts. This year we're waking up at 6 and 7 in the morning to come and workout and eat together. So it has forced us to take better care of ourselves by eating right and getting to bed early so we're not drained, stated Vellano. Basically everything in the dining hall is healthy now, said junior wide receiver Kerry Boykins. Coach Edsall treats us like we're professionals, putting us on a tight schedule and providing us with healthy options for our bodies.
Perhaps the most important changes that will take place over the course of the next few months are those that the new coordinators and coaches will implement on the field. There is one change however that was mentioned amongst almost all of the players in attendance: speed. We're going to play at a faster tempo than we did last year, said Danny O'Brien. The offense is focused on getting our playmakers the ball in space and then utilizing our speed to pick up extra yards. To accommodate this new style of play many of the players have been dropping weight over the winter to get faster. Kerry Boykins dropped 7 pounds, junior linebacker Darin Drakeford dropped 5 pounds, and lineman Joe Vellano said that many of the guys on the line have been losing significant weight to adjust to the faster tempo that they all anticipate next season.
Another challenge for the new-look Terps is the time it takes to learn a whole new offensive and defensive scheme. As the leader of the team though, O'Brien is confident in his team's ability to adapt. I think it's tougher to learn a new offense than to learn your first offense but what has really helped is that a lot of the terminology has remained the same, he stated. Still, getting a whole new playbook with some words you've never seen before is like learning a whole new language, but I'm the kind of guy who want to be prepared everyday and I'm doing everything I can to get there, said the standout quarterback. When asked about the changes in the defense, linebacker Darin Drakeford spoke about the mentality of attacking and how the defense would be taking on a new mindset come the fall. Last year under coach [Don] Brown's defense we would attack from play one and we wouldn't let up until the game was over. This year I think the defense is going to be more strategic in how and when we attack the offense.
It is no surprise however that team took a few hits over the offseason losing the leaders on both sides of the ball in the departure of Wide Receiver Torrey Smith and Linebacker Alex Wujciak. The loss of the explosive Smith at the receiver position, as well as the graduation of Adrian Cannon leaves two big holes to fill amongst this season's young wideout core. I can see 6-7 receivers getting into the game on a game-to-game basis because we simply have the talent to rotate guys like that this year, said Kerry Boykins, who as a junior will be getting his first real shot at significant playing time this season. Some of the other receivers and I have had to grow up fast because now we're the older guys and we have to lead this group which has a lot of young talent, he said. Two of the freshman wideout that Boykins mentioned as impact players this season were Tyrek Cheeseboro, whom Boykins calls a, speedy guy, and Nigel Kling, who he claims is, a great big target with nice hands. On the defensive side of the ball, the Terrapins lost Alex Wujciak, not only a statistical leader but as Joe Vellano says, our emotional leader. Alex was someone who you could not only count on for 8-9 tackles a game, but he was the guy that would go out there and motivate us at a big point in the game. He'll be hard to replace, said Vellano.
Despite all of the new faces and new schemes however, the Maryland players are incredibly confident that they will have another stellar season. All the changes and new faces are all out of the box and this box is the white lines on the grass field, said David Meggett. We lost a few players but we're still the same team and there's no doubt in my mind that we have the talent to make up for that, he asserted. Danny O'Brien talked about the excitement throughout the program for this new era that is being ushered in at College Park. We're really excited because a lot of the team is coming back. It may be a new scheme but it's a lot of the same guys and we're a tight family here at Maryland. Right now the focus for us is to get the new offense down and get comfortable with it so we can play and not think come the fall, said O'Brien. One of the big stories on defense this season will be the transition that 1st Team All-ACC safety Kenny Tate will be making as he switches to the linebacker position. We have 7 starters back on defense and we're moving Kenny to the line. It's all about having 11 playmakers on the field at all times and giving the offense different looks, said Joe Vellano.
As mentioned before, the Terps are diving into this new era headfirst, taking on national powerhouses Miami and West Virginia in their first two games of the 2011 campaign. Against such teams as these, as well as Notre Dame and Florida State, the Terps will really rely on last year's surprise leader in Quarterback Danny O'Brien. Danny impresses me every single day, said Kerry Boykins. I'm always hounding him to throw and his arm has gotten significantly stronger than it was last year, said the junior receiver. Danny is a great asset to the team, said David Meggett. His ability to attack the defense opens up huge holes for the running backs and that gives us a huge edge, said the senior back.
Once the players finally got out on the field around 3:30 on Tuesday afternoon, the excitement and anticipation to build upon last year's success was very apparent as players were sprinting from drill to drill and jumping up and down. Yet the energy was a controlled energy, as the players seemed very disciplined and receptive under the watchful eye of the new head coach. Edsall roamed to and fro on the practice field, starting out on the far side of the field with the kick returners and working his way over to the wide receivers. The new head coach had words of advice for seemingly all of his players, pulling many aside to speak to them and give them a few tips as to what they could do to improve. Appropriately, the practice was a no-pads practice in shorts and practice jerseys, as the offense went through simple runs and the linemen worked on shifts. After a short team stretch, the Terps broke back out into individual groups as the receiver used the JUGG machine to field passes and the quarterbacks threw into the nets. The new coaches matched the intensity of their players, screaming instructions audible across the campus and encouraging their players to push themselves in every manner.
It is no doubt this is a time of change in College Park. Coach Edsall and his new staff are bringing a new swagger to the program that hasn't been seen in quite some time. With the energy surrounding the upcoming season, Maryland football will soon be the talk of the town.