COLLEGE PARK, Md. – Maryland quarterback C.J Brown looked back wistfully on the heady days of August camp, when he had at his disposal the makings of perhaps the best receiving corps in the ACC, if not beyond.
There was All-American candidate Stefon Diggs, junior college All-American transfer Deon Long, and another former four-star prep standout coming into his own, sophomore Nigel King, the 6-foot-3, 210-pound physical specimen with a 40-plus-inch vertical leap and ability to snatch balls out of the air like no other on the team.
"At the beginning of the season it was like, 'Nigel, Stef and Deon.' He's up there with those two guys," Brown said yesterday of the potential of the Big Three and what could have been.
Flash forward to November, and two of the three are down for the season following the broken leg injuries sustained by Diggs and Long three weeks ago at Wake Forest.
Now, the Terps are hoping the mantle will be passed to a finally healthy King. It's been a rough go of late for the former four-star standout, who injured his leg at UConn, didn't start for two games, had some ups and downs as a reserve the past few games, and then suffered the loss of a cousin during the weekend of Maryland's game against Wake Forest. During last week's bye, King travelled to attend his cousin's funeral.
In addition to comforting his mother through the tragedy, King said he mostly used the bye week to rest his legs and study film to try and get his season on track. He said he focused on the basics, starting with catching the ball, after some blown opportunities against Clemson with the numerous receiver drops spread across the unit.
"Mainly I feel like just catching the ball, making the big plays that come to us. I feel like we missed a lot of opportunities for big plays in that game," King said.
King, a highly-conditioned athlete who needs to be at 100 percent health to shine, said he is back to his pre-UConn injury days. He said he had to take time easing back in because he did not want to rush his injury and have a setback.
But he bounced back big against Clemson after an early drop, posting a career-high 76 yards on five catches including a 14-yard touchdown reception from Caleb Rowe during the fourth quarter.
King had also -- early on -- emerged as the Terps' best possession receiver in complementing the big-play Diggs and Long this season, not to mention he was the most physical blocker. But all those things came to a halt when he was injured in Week Three, and didn't play up to his potential during the last month. He didn't play well with the lingering injury, his pain threshold perhaps not as high as some of the others.
King, along with emerging sophomore Levern Jacobs and Amba Etta, will need to lead the unit down the stretch, The receiver unit was maligned for its spotty performance against Clemson, and consistency is needed.
But for the first time in a month King is back atop the depth chart, wrestling the job back from redshirt freshman Malcolm Culmer. In six games, King has eight catches for 198 yards and two scores, numbers that should certainly go up with him playing at 100 percent. Brown, who missed a stretch of games with a concussion and an undisclosed injury, is back, and King and Jacobs are the likely prime field stretchers.
"I feel like I am where I used to," King said. "I was watching film of the first two games yesterday, and I feel like watching the Clemson game I was back to where I was. That touchdown was something to build off of. I am ready to come back in this week and basically do the same thing….making plays that come to me."
King said his role changed after Long and Diggs went down. Overall, he remains the best overall athlete in terms of size, speed and vertical, with the ability to go up and high-point balls.
"I feel the ball can be spread around more now than it was before. Mainly the big difference is just being consistent in practice and being the playmaker that I was always supposed to be," King said. "And being the playmaker like I can be [coming] out of high school. My biggest thing is I feel I haven't stepped up to being the player I could have been out of high school, so now is my opportunity of playing a lot more and opportunity to get more balls. I can be that player that I always knew I could be."
King said Brown is focused, and quickly working his way back after missing the Clemson game with his trunk/hip injury. The Maryland offense really hasn't been right since he's been nicked either, so the team hopes the return of so many offensive players this week (which also included running back Brandon Ross as well) brings some more steadiness to a unit seemingly still in search of an identity.
"In practice he's like, ‘Let's go. No mistakes.' What he always preaches: ‘No mistakes. Get it done. Have a good practice.' So real positive about it," King said of the unit's leader Brown, who will likely run some zone read plays to open up the offense more.
King said this week's opponent, Syracuse, has renewed life after he watched some film of their shutout of Wake Forest last weekend. SU's secondary, however, has been criticized, but their defense brings pressure and a lot of ‘man.' Athletes like King in the Terps' receiver corps need to continue to get more separation and finish plays, as too many plays have been left on the field in recent weeks, going back to the FSU game.
"They played a good game against Wake Forest. I mean, they came out strong," King said of Syracuse. "And to be a good team you got to come out and beat a good team. So they're pretty good."
Brown said having King back is huge, especially considering the fact he was "one of the leaders in the wide receiver room. We expect big things from him, and for him to step up and take the game to his level."
Terps safety A.J. Hendy said it's great to have the big target back, as the Terps' offense and defense are trying to put two good halves together. It's something that hasn't really happened this season.
"Nigel's a big, physical receiver. He has strong hands, runs good routes, and he's ready for a breakout game to me," Hendy said. "He's very eager, very eager to get back out, as anytime you have an injury you have disappointment. It's frustrating, it's a difficult task rehabbing. But I feel he's handled it really well and is ready for a breakout."
If the Terps can put it all together, they'll likely be in position to claim win No. 6 and become bowl eligible. But King said the team is setting the bar a bit higher than that.
"Our actual goal we set wasn't get to six wins," King said. "We wanted to get as many wins as possible. But of course first we want to be bowl eligible."
King said getting so many players back this week, especially on the offensive side, is key, even though Diggs and Long remain sidelined.
"I have been here for two losing seasons, and of course last year we had the quarterback injuries, so I mean, we've been through that," King said. "But now we are to a point we are in a better place than we were last year, so we just got to keep it going."
King said it was an emotional week, as not only did his cousin, who was very close to his own mother, pass, but her mother passed a few weeks before that.
For now, he is trying to channel his emotion to the team in order to come out with a win during this week's pivotal game.
"We don't lose at home, that's what we preach to each other," King said. "So we come out and play our hardest. Playing on the road is always hard, but at home it's our home so we always come out and play hard. That's what we do."
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