What would Terps spring football be without some snow on the ground?
Or only two quarterbacks available?
Or nearly a dozen significant players on the sideline injured or rehabbing from surgery?
Much remains the same in College Park, Md., on the eve of spring camp starting March 4 for head coach Randy Edsall and Co. However, much has changed as well.
There's the new 4-3 defensive scheme implemented this month -- gone is defensive coordinator Brian Stewart, in is inside linebackers coach Keith Dudzinski -- a shift in philosophy in the weight room with strength and conditioning, and two new position coaches (hopefully) this month to integrate into the staff. Not to mention said staff pitching in to handle special teams, which was vacated when ex-running backs/special teams coach Andre Powell left for Pittsburgh last month.
But Randy Edsall was more than chipper Feb. 27 as he discussed the prospects for his fourth spring camp at UMD, despite the less-than-ideal weather conditions, which prompted a two-day delay in the start of camp next week.
“We’re excited to be able to get out on the field next week starting on [March 4],” Edsall said. “We’re looking forward to it. And really just focusing on getting better, getting our guys to understand the schemes even more, and get better from a fundamental and technique standpoint. And make sure we get all these guys in the right positions that we want to get them in.”
First thing's first. Out for the spring are, most notably, presumptive starting quarterback Caleb Rowe (knee), running back Wes Brown (shoulder), slot receiver Taivon Jacobs (knee), tight end Andrew Isaacs (knee), and even long snapper Christian Carpenter (back), among other notables injured last fall. But rejoining the mix will be several intriguing figures as well, including promising sophomore linebacker Cavon Walker; former junior college transfer safety prospect Denzel Conyers; and senior and top all-around receiver Levern Jacobs, back from suspension. Additionally, up-and-coming rookie defensive back Daniel Ezeagwu and freshman linebacker Nanamdi Egbuaba will be back from injury.
The list of others still out for camp, from fall injuries or recent clean-up surgeries, includes defensive end Quinton Jefferson (knee); cornerback Alvin Hill (knee and shoulder); wide receiver Amba Etta-Tawo (shoulder); safety Elvis Dennah (shoulder); and linebacker Avery Thompson (shoulder). Meanwhile, offensive lineman Sean Christie (knee) is back, and safety Milan Collins (foot) and punter Lee Shrader (foot) are "limited." Defensive lineman Ruben Franco also had shoulder surgery this winter and is out. Edsall said Jefferson and Jacobs may do some limited individual work after spring break in late March.
Intriguing is the 6-foot-3 Conyers, who would have played last season on the defensive backline had he not been ruled ineligible by the NCAA after arriving from junior college last spring. Edsall said the only position change, really, is junior safety Sean Davis working at corner this spring. He said Ryan Doyle is playing offensive guard this spring as well.
The other good news for Terps fans is Edsall is not holding anyone out for academic or other off-field issues this spring.
But overall, the biggest news/change is the defensive scheme, moving to a 4-3 in the run-heavy Big Ten. The shift also makes sense considering Maryland’s talent on the edge, notably hybrid ends Yannick Ngakoue and Jesse Aniebonam, to name a few.
Edsall said that in his end of season team review, he thought the change was needed. The bottom fell out in the final two games, losses to Rutgers and Stanford, and the Terps tumbled in the national defensive rankings after beginning the season fairly strong.
“I think what you always do is sit down and evaluate after each season in terms of your personnel and what you think your young men can do best. And I just feel we are better suited to be a 4-3 team,” Edsall said. “And when you take a look at who we have, I think it fits us better. I am excited about it, we have been meeting about it and putting it in. It’s not... there’s differences of course, but I know it will make us stronger, make us better, the kids are excited about it, so we are looking forward to getting out there on the field and teaching some of those new things.”
The Terps will emulate Edsall’s 4-3 he used previously at UConn, with likely a lot more man coverage. The Terps have strength on the edges, with Ngakoue and Aniebonam moving up, while they are still reloading in the middle at tackle on the defensive front.
At quarterback, with Rowe on the shelf (he may know by the end of March on his medical redshirt application), Edsall said it will be a big spring for both yeoman junior backup Perry Hills and sophomore Shane Cockerille, the latter who will sit atop, at least at the outset, the spring depth chart, though both players will get first and second-team reps.
Last spring the Terps were without starter C.J. Brown in the spring, but had freshman Will Ulmer. But he has since moved to slot. The Terps don't even have any walk-on QBs this month. Edsall said they will put Cockerille "out there to see what he can do,” while the headman noted the former Gilman star has matured considerably in the last year, both on and off the field.
“We hope that he has improved and gotten better, all these things,” Edsall said. “But it will be an on-going competition throughout the spring.”
The rugged lefty has not seen the field yet, but has worked to improve his release and pickups, as well as his footwork, after being mostly a running quarterback at Gilman. Edsall said Cockerille sees there “is opportunity for him…to be the quarterback here. And you have to be a leader all of the time. I see a guy who is more mature and better now than when he got here, and even the beginning of last year.”
Meanwhile, Edsall said Rowe is “coming along fine” with his rehab, “and the trainers and doctors are very happy with his progress.”
As for the staff, Edsall said he has not begun interviewing for the vacant defensive backs coach spot, but added he hopes to have it filled within "a week to 10 days."
In regards to the special teams, Edsall said he personally will pitch in, as will assistants John Dunn (punt), Keenan McCardell (punt return), Terry Richardson (kickoff return), and other coaches and graduate assistants. Edsall said it is difficult to have one coach handling both a position and special teams, like Powell did, so he wants a dedicated person “in the near future.” He said the soon-to-be-hired defensive backs coach will handle kickoff coverage.
In looking at the overall spring roster, Edsall didn't point out anyone in particular among the many young players, returnees from injury, depth battles and the like, that he is keying on.
Edsall did mention, however, the improvements and intrigue for some he's seen across the board: Players like offensive linemen Derwin Gray, Damian Prince, Brendan Moore, Sean Christie, as well as Cockerille, Levern Jacobs, Jacquille Veii (full-time at running back), tight end Derrick Hayward (strength gained), Will Ulmer (progress at slot), and freshman receiver Juwann Winfree (coming off a late-season suspension).
“And a guy like Michael Dunn, you are going to see a bigger, thicker Michael Dunn than what you saw before,” Edsall said.
He also singled out defensive linemen Malik Jones and Oseh Saine, a mid-year enrollee, as well as Aniebonam, Ngakaoue, and Walker coming back from injury. He went on to laud Brett Kulka, Kingsley Opara and Roman Braglio on the D-line and their potential, as well as Jermiane Carter and Tyler Burke at the "Mike" spots, and Abner Logan as “the No. 1 'Will.'” Finally, Edsall wants to see how safeties Jeremiah Hendy (back from suspension) and Conyers fare.
“There’s a lot,” Edsall said of what may catch his eye this coming month.
Speaking of special teams, Edsall said junior kicker Brad Craddock (no surprise) led the offseason work among the team, both on and off the field/in the weightroom, as the Aussie continues to be a model of the program.
This spring, two rookie punters, Lee Shrader a redshirt freshman, and Nick Pritchard, a true freshman just arrived, will battle for the spot that early-departee Nate Renfro vacated. Shrader is coming off a foot injury, while Pritchard was an early high school graduate who arrived last month.
“That’s the one thing I have been very impressed with, the leadership that has taken place,” Edsall said. “This is a team that’s really taken ownership of what needs to be done. And the guy that has kinda spearheaded the whole thing is Brad Craddock.”
And down in the basement of the Gossett Football Team House, the emphasis has shifted away from quickness/finesse with the strength and conditioning program to mass/strength. It's another change after a year in the Big Ten, and perhaps after the myriad injuries the last three years.
“I think, and again, you take a look at who you are playing and who you go against,” Edsall said. “And what you have to do in order to make your team better. And the one thing that I felt….and again, when you look at the difference in terms of conferences, the ACC is probably a little bit more… it’s different. And then you go in the Big Ten and what was going on there, so there were things we had to tweak to have us better deal with who we are playing each and every week. And on [March 4] you will see some bigger, thicker guys than you have seen before.”
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