COLLEGE PARK, Md. – There were happy faces and some horseplay on the Capital One Field at Byrd Stadium turf as the rain held off long enough to take pictures at Maryland’s 2015 Football Media Day Aug. 10.
The Terps lined up to take the obligatory photos, and all was well as Maryland started thinking about the first practice the night of Aug. 10, the first of 29, before the season-opening game, Sept. 5, against Richmond.
Fifth-year coach Randy Edsall is hoping everything lines up right as his team begins those preparations. It’s not a given. Maryland will have a new starting quarterback, a new defense, seven new starters on that unit, a new-and-improved offensive line, and a bunch of if-not-new, at least unheralded, guys catching passes.
One thing this team is long on, though, and the reason for Edsall’s ubiquitous upbeat tone, is leadership. “In 17 years as a head coach, I don’t know that I’ve been around a group that has taken on the leadership role this group has taken on since January,” said the coach of a team that lost a total of 12 starters and 25 letterwinners off a 7-6 team that went to the Foster Farms Bowl.
Edsall lauded the leadership and what it meant -- “a very productive summer” that saw the Terps get bigger and stronger and work toward filling all those spots left open by graduation and attrition.
“I said to our guys last night that this is great for me and my coaching staff because we’ve probably got more competition at all the positions than in the five years since I’ve been here,” said Edsall. “That’s going to be great to see.”
The Terps were scheduled to be in helmets Aug. 10 but no pads. Two days like that, and then helmets and shoulder pads before it’s full gear on the weekend and some scrimmaging Saturday. They’ll take Sunday off.
Terrapin Tales: Major Storylines
Besides leadership, the Terrapins are also loaded in storylines. Here’s a quick overview of some of the major ones:
* With C.J. Brown (who Edsall quipped [accurately] had been in the program longer than Edsall had) graduated, the quarterback job is a three-man race featuring favorite, oft-injured senior Caleb Rowe, Oklahoma State transfer Daxx Garman and tough-as-nails redshirt junior Perry Hills.
* The offensive line looks like Maryland’s best in years. Anchored by tackles Derwin Gray and Damian Prince, there’s more size than ever, some experience and, something even more precious, depth, though Gray will be a tad slow coming out of the gates after off-season shoulder surgery.
* With Stefon Diggs and Deon Long, not to mention Marcus Leak, Jaquille Veii, and Juwann Winfree gone, there’s a chance for a lot of lesser-known pass-catchers to make a name for themselves.
* The defense is going from a 3-4 alignment to a 4-3 under new defensive coordinator Keith Dudzinski, promoted from linebackers coach. It’s a good time to make such a switch, only one starter – converted linebacker Yannick Ngakoue – is back in the front seven and he’s playing a new position.
* The linebackers are all new, too, but the late addition of senior transfer Jefferson Ashiru from UConn, helped solidify a promising group headed by Jermaine Carter, Abner Logan and Jalen Brooks.
* The Terps have one of the best cornerback tandems in the country in preseason All-American Will Likely and senior pro prospect Sean Davis. Seniors Anthony Nixon and A.J. Hendy are solid at the safeties, too.
*Kicker Brad Craddock isn’t just the best kicker in the country, he’s also a true team leader for the Terps, something Edsall went on about from one question for over six minutes.
There are more stories but those are the main ones as camp opens. Maryland is also relatively healthy. Gray, the big lineman, is limited by his shoulder surgery but that just moves former starter, junior Michael Dunn, back into the starting left tackle slot and means more work for others, something line coach Greg Studrawa likes.
“We’re looking for the best five guys that work as a unit,” he said. “And that means it’s very possible we’ll move some guys around to find the right combination.”
As for Gray, he will do everything he is allowed to do short of contact, and when he’s allowed, “he’ll jump right in,” said Studrawa. “I don’t want him cleared for contact and then two more weeks until he’s ready for contact. As soon as he’s ready we want him to jump in and go.”
Likewise, tight end Andrew Issacs, who had that nasty dislocated knee last year in the Syracuse game, is still limited in the things he can do in camp. Freshman linebacker Adam McLean, who suffered an ACL injury in high school, will also take it slow and is destined for a redshirt.
QB, QB, QB or Not QB, QB, QB, That is the Question
As for that quarterback competition that everyone wants to talk about, it is on right out of the gates. “It’s nothing new,” said Rowe, who sat out the spring. “Since I’ve been here, it has been a competition with Perry or C.J. It’s something I’m looking forward to. I haven’t played football in 10 months (knee injury), but I’m ready to get back out there.”
Garman, the senior who threw for 12 touchdowns and 2,041 yards at OSU last year, is ready, too. “All three of us are here to compete every day,” said Garman, so popular as an interview target, he had to move from his seat in Gossett Team House and take a position standing in the corner to accommodate cameras and reporters. “That’s what we’re here for. The best guy is going to play and that’s what’s best for the team.”
Hills, now a junior, hasn’t played significant minutes at the position since 2012, when he was thrust in the lineup because of injuries. He’s such a tough gamer, no one wants to count him out but he’s obviously the long shot, though Edsall doesn’t frame it that way.
“That’s going to be an interesting battle, Daxx and Caleb and Perry, they’re going to battle it out. It’s nice to have three guys that have won games against Power 5 teams. We have guys that can step up and be the guy.”
Redshirt junior Levern Jacobs, who has a lot riding on the answer to the QB question, saw all of them ply their trade this summer during seven-on-seven work. “I think that’s one of the more heated battles going into camp,” he said. “C-Rowe brings his arm strength. His arm is so strong and a lot of people don’t know that. Daxx is great with his timing routes, and Perry is another dual-threat quarterback like C.J. He can do it on the ground or through the air. That’s going to be a heated battle.”
Jacobs, who spent time back on the scout team after a suspension last season, then came out and won a starting job in the spring. Along with leading returning wide receiver Amba Etta-Tawo (10 catches for 222 yards), Jacobs headlines a crew with sneaky experience. Etta-Tawo is a junior, as is the other listed starter, Malcolm Culmer. Coming off shoulder surgery, Etta-Tawo is primed for a big year, said Edsall, who added, “It’s his time.”
“It’s a young, exciting unit with a lot of opportunities,” said receivers coach Keenan McCardell. “They know somebody has to step up and make plays. I tell them they all can step up. We have to infuse confidence in those guys. I tell them everyday a star is born.”
Redshirt freshman Tavion Jacobs, junior DeAndre Lane, converted QB Will Ulmer, redshirt Zac Morton and true freshmen D.J. Moore and Jahrvis Davenport also have a chance to get in the mix, McCardell saying he will use as many as it takes to get the job done. His charges have a great attitude about the situation.
“As a unit I think we’re better and we’re going to be good this year,” said the elder Jacobs. “I don’t think there are any individuals in the receiving corps. I think everybody wants everybody to get the ball. We’re going to get an equal amount of opportunities. I think a lot of people are going to be surprised at what everybody does.”
Edsall, for his part, doesn’t understand all the fuss about his wide receivers. “I feel really good about our wide receivers. I see all this stuff people are saying about our wide receivers and everything else, and I just kind of laugh at it, myself. I think we’ve got some pretty dynamic guys and guys that have worked really hard.”
“We have a very good chemistry and we’re all hungry,” said Culmer.
What’s the Big Deal on Defense?
3-4? 4-3? What’s the difference (particularly for the Terps)? Let’s ask defensive coordinator Keith Dudzinski.
“The bottom line is the 3-4, the three guys up front have to be big space-eaters, and quite honestly, we don’t have that those big, big fellas. When you look at the way things broke down, we felt like we had really good edge guys, guys that could play those techniques. We felt a guy like Quinton Jefferson, who has all kinds of athletic ability, we can put him in different positions and use his athletic ability.”
Basically, with four defensive linemen, the defensive linemen can line up in the natural gaps in the offensive line and make plays by getting in the backfield quickly, a Maryland strong-suit.
“It gives us a chance to be a little more aggressive and play downhill more,” said Edsall.
“As a defense for us, I think it’s going to work great,” added junior defensive end Roman Braglio. “It fits our players better and we’re excited about it.”
Ngakoue, a breakout star last year as a blitzing linebacker, will still be on the edge as the new “Bandit” end, only down in a three-point stance, something that may make him more explosive off the ball. Big Ten beware.
“The personnel that we have recruited here, we thought it was a little better fit as a 4-3 style, that’s all,” said Dudzinski. “At the end of the day, guys have to know their jobs and play fast, and that’s what we’re trying to do.
Pressed into naming names, Dudzinski is looking for big things from Ngakoue and his backup, sophomore Jesse Aniebonam, another frighteningly athletic linebacker making the switch to end. Braglio and junior Cavon Walker (yep, another converted linebacker) show promise at the other end.
“At linebacker, I’m excited about what I saw out of Abner (Logan) and Jermaine (Carter) in the spring,” said Dudzinski. “I thought Tyler Burke did a good job. He’s still got some things he has to get better at. All those guys have done a great job.”
The addition of Ashiru and his experience is also a key component and creates maybe one of the best battles on defense, a three-way Battle Royale with Ashiru, Jalen Brooks and Avery Thompson for one outside spot. Carter locked up the middle in the spring, and Logan has his name on the other outside spot.
“The competition is constantly making us better,” said Dudzinski.
There’s not as much competition in that secondary, a primary Maryland strength. There is quality depth (senior Alvin Hill and junior Jarrett Ross on the corners and junior Denzel Conyers at safety) but no one is taking jobs away from Likely and Davis.
“I’ve learned a lot from Will, the way he studies and prepares,” said Davis. “We’re looking forward to playing more man-to-man. We love the challenge.”
Big Big Ten Picture
Edsall was asked what a realistic annual finish in the Big Ten would be for Maryland, and he was defensive but honest. “If I don’t answer it the right way I’ll get criticized. You want to finish first. That’s what you’re striving for and that’s what we’re building for. Are we there yet? I don’t know. We’ll find our where we are after we play this year. The big thing is we want to continue to build our program and get to the point where we are No. 1.”
Edsall said Maryland would soon have the resources to “compete against Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan and everyone else in our division.” That translation is the Cole Field House project and the long-awaited indoor football facility that will further enhance recruiting and put Maryland on a more even practice field with the rest of the Big Ten.
“We’ve added to our staff to get us closer to where people are in the Big Ten and we have to be on a consistent basis in our division if we want to win the east. All those things, we’re building towards it. You win with players, and I think we’ve increasingly got better increasing our talent level each year, and that’s the thing we have to do.”
He envisions Maryland being in the upper echelon of the Eastern Division in the Big Ten every year, with a chance to win. He admitted, though, consistency – long before he arrived – has not been a Terrapin strong suit on the gridiron.
“We’ve got some ground to make up,” he said.
The silver lining is that “The DMV Movement” – more local talent staying home to attend Maryland – can accelerate that process and get the Terrapins where they want to be.
That bigger offensive line, built on the shoulder pads of top local prospects, is a major step in the right direction. Studrawa said it was one thing to tell the line they needed to be bigger and stronger but now that they’ve been through a Big Ten season, they took it upon themselves to do just that and rise to the challenge.
“I think our offensive line will be better this year,” Edsall said. “We’ll run the ball more effectively, more efficiently than what we did a year ago. There are two things: we have to be able to stop the run better and we have to be able to run the ball better, and that’s something we’ve been working on since January, and we’ll continue to do so.”
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