COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Senior linebacker Cole Farrand took a seat in the front of the plush Gossett Team House theater at Maryland’s 2014 Football Media Day.
Coach Randy Edsall had just finished his brief comments to a phalanx of TV cameras and reporters scribbling in their notebooks. He then answered questions for nearly 30 minutes. Now it was the players’ turn and several of the most decorated Terrapins strolled in to face the media. Farrand, an All-ACC linebacker -- whoops, sorry -- that was way back before Maryland was in the Big Ten, summed up the Terrapins pretty quickly.
“We’re going to be pretty darn good,” he said. “We’ve got a great defense, a lot of returning starters, a lot of seniors. The team is looking good in camp and this is just the beginning.”
Randy Edsall, it should be noted, did not say any of that, soft-selling a team that still should be his best in four years in College Park. “I’ve been pleased with the first eight practices that we’ve had,” Edsall did say. “I’ve seen a lot of improvement but still know that we’ve got a lot of work to do before we play our first game. There are some things that are starting to become a little more clearer in regards to our team.”
Edsall also said this week would be more difficult because now that much of the installation of the system is in place, it’s now a matter of working on technique. And, oh yeah, the team will have two-a-day practices Tuesday and Thursday.
The coach is looking to fine tune “the precision and timing” of the players the staff think will be playing, particularly on offense. Like the defense, the Maryland offense returns eight starters but there’s a lot more to get up and running, literally, on that side of the ball.
“From Practice One, every day we’ve gotten a little better,” said junior tailback Albert Reid, one of four runners listed as co-starters at the position. “As long as guys are staying in the playbook we can be more consistent by knowing what we’re doing and what the man next to us is doing.”
Leading rusher Brandon Ross (726 yards, 64.7 per game) is back, as is Reid (294 yards, 4.2 per carry). Speedy sophomore Jacquille Veii has worked his way into the discussion and a rusty Wes Brown is back from his one-year suspension.
“There’s no doubt we’re fortunate to have four talented guys,” said offensive coordinator Mike Locksley. “Some guys have done some things but nobody has done such a bang-up job that you say they are heads and shoulders above the next guy. I’m hoping the next few weeks we find out who that guy is going to be and kind of load him up and get him the ball.”
Edsall seems to have a preference for Ross, who he said has improved as a pass-blocker. He calls Reid “steady.” Veii “brings a lot of energy and enthusiasm…just trying to perfect all his assignments.” Wes is a “tough, downhill runner who has to be more efficient.”
Tight end, where sophomore P.J. Gallo seems to have a slight edge over redshirt freshmen Derrick Hayward and sophomore Andrew Isaacs, is another position in need of a little more sorting.
The other skill positions should be set, starting with sixth-year quarterback C.J. Brown, the first Terrapin ever to throw for over 2,000 yards and rush for more than 500. He had 2,242 yards by air and 576 by land, accounting for 25 touchdowns along the way.
“I told him this is his team (and) he needs to take more charge of what’s going on out there,’ said Edsall. “We have a very high level of expectation for our players. We have to get C.J. to be a little more decisive and always understand to utilize whatever the defense gives you whether that’s taking off and running with it or throwing it. Whatever it is, don’t hesitate.”
Edsall, it became clear, was not ready to dispense a lot of kudos for his stars, still hoping to push them as camp moves on. Take the wide receivers. Please. Edsall almost made it sound of his twin big-play threats Stefon Diggs and Deon Long have run routes directly into the doghouse.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do at the receiver corps, we have to step it up there,” he said. “Two guys that I have been most impressed with have been Tavion Jacobs and Levern Jacobs, those are the guys that I think have probably practiced the best so far. Everybody wants to talk about our receivers but we have to go out on the field and earn it and do it.”
Long, who will return to practice tomorrow from a rib injury, addressed the coach’s criticism last week, admitting he had to step it up. Diggs felt the same way.
“The big thing is for us to get better each and every day,” said Diggs, who is second among all FBS players with a career average of 156.0 all-purpose yards per game. “(Coach Edsall) wants us to up our game and turn it up a notch. He wants our best and we’ll keep getting better until we meet his expectations.”
“Potential has to meet production,” said Locksley. “We push them, we prod them to be the best because when those guys are at their best they are among the best receivers in the country. You’d just like to see that more consistently is what Coach (Edsall) is saying.”
Thanks to Diggs’ and Long’s broken legs last year, the Terps do have an embarrassment of experienced riches at wide receiver with the Jacobs’, Marcus Leak, Amba Etta Tawo, Malcolm Culmer, Daniel Adams and good-looking freshman Juwan Winfree.
The situation isn’t so rosy along the offensive line, which is a reason Maryland isn’t universally loved as a Big Ten favorite. There’s some experience but not much depth unless a couple of big freshmen come up big and well, there’s hope that those two, Derwin Gray and Damian Prince come up really big.
Well, let Edsall tell the story: “We don’t have as much depth there as we’d like to. (Sophomore) Mike Dunn is having a really good preseason. We need him to be more technically sound. (Dunn moved from guard to left tackle this year). Silvano (Altamirano) had a great scrimmage yesterday and he’s somebody we feel really good about (at left guard). You got Sal (Conaboy, a Rimington Watch List candidate) at center, Andy Zeller at right guard and Ryan Doyle. I think moving him from left to right has helped him, seems like a more natural fit for him.”
Edsall also praised backup left tackle Jake Wheeler (“playing his best football”) and “young pup” Gray. True freshman center Brendan Moore also earned a shout-out. Edsall also said that Prince “has all the tools, he’s just young.”
First-year offensive line coach Greg Studrawa was more succinct. “In (the Big Ten), the games are won up front. When you control the offensive and defensive line of scrimmage you’re going to win in this league.”
Studrawa also praised Conaboy, Dunn and Altamirano.
Edsall announced that guard Evan Mulrooney, who had been out with a viral infection was back with the team though he still has to be cleared to play, and that might be a while. In the only significant camp injury so far, freshman lineman Sean Christie has been lost with an ACL injury.
There’s less worry on the other side of the ball where five players with a lot of experience return for the three front line spots and there’s young talent working in. Quinton Jefferson anchors one end backed by up-and-comer Malik Jones, and senior nose tackles Keith Bowers and Darius Kilgo have both been starters. Andre Monroe is on the other end with his national-leading average of 0.66 sacks per game heading into this year. Roman Braglio, who Edsall said is “a fierce competitor, tough, just goes out there and grinds it,” backs Monroe.
Edsall in a trend of showing loves for backups, also raved about redshirt freshman Kingsley Opara at end, and true freshman Brett Kulka. Another true frosh, nose tackle David Shaw earned some props and Edsall said that end Spencer Myers, the senior wrestler, has been so impressive that he’ll get some work with the first and second units with Jefferson missing time over a family situation.
“When you have competition and when you have depth it makes everyone better,” said Edsall of one of his base tenets.
The Terps have similar depth at linebacker where Farrand and L.A. Goree, the second and third leading tacklers a year ago, both return in the middle. Matt Robinson, who is primed for a great senior season, is back on the strong side, and gifted Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil, back from injury, is also ready for a huge season in opponents’ backfields. All are seniors, as is top reserve Alex Twine. Sophomore Yannick Ngakoue is also solid behind Cudjoe-Virgil.
Budding star William Likely anchors the secondary at one corner and look for senior Jeremiah Johnson, back from his toe injury, to battle again on the other corner. Junior safeties Sean Davis, the team’s leading tackler a year ago, and Anthony Nixon, are both back, too. Alvin Hill (currently listed atop the cornerback depth chart) and A.J. Hendy are experienced reserves and there’s some good young talent behind them.
“I think Sean Davis has made tremendous growth since last year,” said Edsall. “He’s a hard-worker. He’s a guy you have to tell to back off. He has spent a lot of time in the film room. He’s focused and a lot more vocal. He’s confident. He knows what he’s doing and he’s playing at a faster level.”
“So many of us are back with another year in coach (Brian) Stewart’s defense,” said Farrand. “There’s a lot of confidence. We’ve got a lot of upperclassmen that can teach the freshmen now.”
There’s a lot of confidence in the kicking game, too, with junior Brad Craddock (21-for-25 on field goals last year) back and redshirt freshman Adam Greene pushing him so far in the preseason. Freshman Nate Adams can fill the long-snapping job, and sophomore Christian Carpenter is capable, too, according to Edsall.
The trouble spot is at punter where Maryland was near the bottom of the league last year in net punting and junior Nathan Renfro has shown a tendency to uncork too many line drives. Freshman Lee Shrader was brought in to push Renfro but he hasn’t been consistent enough.
“The punting game is something we still have to work on,” said Edsall. “We need more consistency.”
Fortunately Monday afternoon the players weren’t quite as critical of themselves as the coach. What say you, C.J. Brown?
“We have very high expectations with the depth and the experience we have coming back on offense and defense. Our expectations are very high. We plan on making it to the Big Ten Championship and winning, and that’s where are goals are set.”
And what of this big move to the Big Ten, a question probably asked of every player made available in Gossett. “It’s exciting just because you’re playing new teams,” said C.J. Brown. “It’s not the same teams it has been every year, and obviously you’re playing in new venues that are very historic.”
It was Keith Bowers who probably summed the move up best, though. “We’re ready,” he smiled. “The only change is the helmets we’re going to play.”
And are you pointing to any particular games, Stefon Diggs?
“JMU,” he said of the season-opener on August 30.
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