COLLEGE PARK, Md. – Two players who didn’t play last year talked about two players just named starters and about three home games to open the season, among other topics, as all Terrapin eyes turned to Sept. 5's football opener with Richmond. It was Maryland’s first weekly press conference in the Tyser Tower at Capital One Field at Byrd Stadium, and suffice to say the Terrapins are anxious to suit up and kick things off noon Sept. 5.
As defensive tackle Quinton Jefferson and wide receiver Levern Jacobs both talked about returning to the field for the first time in a year, the passion for pigskin was apparent.
“I’ve been waiting for this day for a long time,” said Jefferson, who was felled by a knee injury in the third game last fall. “Getting hurt and then watching my teammates go like to Penn State was just so hard. You miss that energy and you just want to be out there.”
The passion for Penn State might be a little more than typically ratcheted up for Richmond, a FCS program the Terps haven’t played since 1977. But it is the season-opener and the Spiders have historically been capable of biting opponents. Witness a 9-5 record and berth in the playoffs again last year, their ninth time in the FCS postseason shindig.
“They’re going to come in with a lot of energy, they want to beat us,” said Jefferson. “They want to be beat a (FBS) Division I team, and they have a lot of playmakers at receiver and running back. It’s going to be an exciting game.”
Making a Mountain out of a Hills
The game could be most exciting for recently named offensive starters Perry Hills at quarterback, and Mike Minter at left guard. With the big-time tandem duo of Derwin Gray (shoulder) and Damian Prince (concussion) nicked up in the preseason, senior Ryan Doyle slid back to tackle and Minter, who was among five Terp walk-ons rewarded with scholarships, stepped in as a starter.
Apologies to Minter in the middle of the offensive line but there were more questions about dark horse Hills winning the quarterback job in camp.
“I think people never thought he had a chance to be the quarterback,” said Maryland coach Randy Edsall. “That’s the great thing about sport. It’s the great thing about life. You don’t have to believe what other people say. You go out and control what you can control and all Perry did was go out and work very, very hard through the spring and over the summer. He knew there was a competition and he went out and won the job.”
Fellow junior Caleb Rowe had seemed to have the inside track, and if not him, then Oklahoma State senior transfer Daxx Garman. Both had more proven passing pedigrees than Hills but no one seems to be tougher than the Pittsburgh native who is best remember for being thrown into the fire as a true freshman in 2012.
Terrapin players knew all about Hills’ tenacity, though.
“(Hills) came into this camp and he wanted to be the starting quarterback,” explained Jacobs, who has returned from a team suspension last fall. “He was focused and he attacked the situation and battled. There were no favorites and he just out-worked the other guys.”
Truth is Hills doesn’t have the arm of the other two, nor the overall experience. He ran a watered-down offense in 2012 in an emergency situation and handled himself and the team well. And then he sat for two years and apparently was paying attention and learning his craft while CJ Brown did his thing.
“The last scrimmage when Perry drove us down the first drive, right then and there I noticed that Perry was the guy,” said Jacobs. “He took over the team and kind of made it look easy. He’s confident. He’s confident in his arm. He’s confident on his feet.”
Edsall sees Hills’ rise on the depth chart as a motivation for the entire team. “Nobody outside the program thought he was going to be our starting quarterback so you can imagine how the guys in the program feel about him because he went out and competed and won the job.”
Hills has thrown just 10 passes since 2012, when he hit 57.4 percent for eight touchdowns, seven interceptions and 1,336 yards.
Jefferson voiced similar admiration for Minter, a 6-3, 305-pound sophomore. “I’m excited for Mike, he gets the opportunity to play the game and he really deserves it. Just watching him over this offseason he has been working his butt off and getting better every day. I have all the confidence in the world for him out there playing.”
For Maryland coaches, the move made sense beyond just Minter coming on strong but also in the initial steps of fielding that cohesive unit they’ve longed for in the offensive line.
“Mike Minter is one of those guys that’s just a competitor,” said Edsall. “He went out there and worked really, really hard. We saw a lot from him in the spring that we liked. I like the fact that those guys are communicating really well. Those five are playing well together, and the biggest thing is really communication.”
For the record, “those five” are junior Michael Dunn at left tackle; Minter, an Academic All-Big Ten selection, at guard; senior Evan Mulrooney at center; senior Andrew Zeller at guard; and Doyle, another senior, over at right tackle. Dunn leads all offensive players with 26 consecutive starts. Doyle, in for the ailing Prince, has 23 career starts. Zeller will be making his 18 consecutive start, and Mulrooney will be under quarterback to start for the sixth time.
On Defense: ‘Just Go Make Plays'
With the move to the 4-3 from the 3-4 of the last few years this season, the defense will have a slightly different look, but what does it mean?
Jefferson broke it down from his perspective in the middle of the four-man line.
"There hasn’t been that much change. I play three-technique (a DT shaded to the OG’s outside shoulder). I play five-technique (lined up directly over OT). At the end of the day you still have to beat the man in front of you.”
Jefferson said while the Maryland defensive line isn’t as big as some, the group takes pride in their toughness. “We can use our athletic ability to beat a lot of people and we’re strong. We’re not just little guys, we’re pretty strong, too.”
For the linemen, though, there’s more glory to be had in the new scheme.
“I feel like it gives me and my other teammates more opportunity to make plays. In a 3-4, we’re swallowing up a lot of guys and trying to free the linebackers. It’s a chance for us to just go make plays.”
And one of the best aspects here in the early season is there’s no film of Maryland in this technique and certainly not with this personnel with so many new players in the front seven. Of course, Richmond has a new offensive coordinator and indications are, despite a reshuffling offensive line, they plan to run the ball more with the stellar tandem of preseason All-America Seth Fisher and fullback T.J. Moon. The 6-2, 232-pound Fisher was a fullback last season.
“He’s a bigger guy, a downhill guy, runs hard,” said Edsall of the Spiders’ 777-yard rusher of a year ago. “We’ve got to tackle him, very productive.”
Along those lines, Edsall likes his rotation up front on the DL to combat such runners and the heavy workload linemen get, particularly in the heat this time of year.
"You like to make sure you’ve got eight guys ready,” said Edsall. “That doesn’t mean all eight guys are going to play equally but you’re able to spell a guy for a couple of plays if we need to. “
He mentioned by name starters Jefferson and converted linebacker-to-end Yannick Ngakoue, who made himself at home in opponents’ backfields last year, along with Roman Braglio at the other end and David Shaw at the nose tackle. Also reserves Jesse Aniebonam, Brent Kulka, Kingsley Opara, Azubuike Ukandu (“Zuby”), Ty Tucker and Oseh Saine. Walk-ons Zuby and Tucker also got scholarships this week.
The loss of outside linebacker Abner Logan, out for the year with a knee injury, was also brought up. The summer addition of UConn transfer Jefferson Ashiru, a senior originally recruited to Storrs by Edsall, has been timely.
“He has responded well,” said Edsall. “You don’t like to see anybody go down. I feel bad for Abner because I know he was looking forward to the opportunity to be a starter. Jefferson is a guy that has been a starter so he’s looking forward to that opportunity, too. He’s a fifth-year guy, a graduate student that has played a lot of football.”
The 6-1, 235-pound Ashiru had 47 tackles with 3.5 tackles-for-loss last year for the Huskies. He’ll go on the weakside of the offense with Jalen Brooks on the other side, and Jermaine Carter making his first career start in the middle.
Randy is Dandy in Openers
Coach Randy Edsall has won his first four openers at Maryland, and it usually hasn’t been close. Take last year’s 52-7 romp over James Madison, ahem, in the same Colonial Athletic Association as Richmond.
In fact, in those four openers Edsall’s Terps have averaged 33.5 points per game. Last year’s barrage against the Dukes were the most Maryland points in a lid-lifter since 1951 when they demoted the Washington & Lee Generals, 54-14.
By the way, sort of hard to read much into this with so many personnel and even scheme changes BUT JMU beat Richmond 55-20 late last season.
Overall, Edsall is 11-5 in season openers and has won 11 of his last 12. Maryland has won five straight and 10 of it’s last 11. The only season-opening blemish over that span is the loss at 12th-ranked California to start the 2009 season. Terps have won 11 straight opening games at Byrd, the last loss coming to Ohio in 1997. All-time Maryland is 76-44-2 to start the season.
Maryland had that anomaly of a season last year in the Big Ten. The Terps were 5-1 on the road but just 2-4 at home. They want to keep the road record similar but want big changes in the home mark, particularly the way the schedule breaks down.
Predictably, Edsall isn’t looking that far down the road. “I really only care about one game and after this one we can talk about the next one,” he said.
But the front-loaded home slate is very appealing to his players.
“Any time you get the first three games at home, get everybody into it, the juices flowing, it’s fun,” said Jefferson. “I’m glad we’ve got the opportunity to open at home.”
“That’s a great momentum boost, having home games back to back,” said Jacobs. “We’re going to take each game one at a time, Richmond first, then Bowling Green and from then, we’re going to try to take that momentum into the Big Ten.”
Richmond is first and the Terrapins have an interesting history in a series that began in 1907 with an 11-5 UR win. Richmond won the first three meeting but Maryland took over, winning the seven of the next eight with a tie before a 1938 loss in College Park. Richmond last beat Maryland in 1946. The Terps took the next four meetings, culminating in a 27-24 triumph in 1977 at Richmond. Maryland leads the all-time series 12-5-1, including a 7-2-1 record at home.
Walk-Ons That Made the Program Run
In addition to Mike Minter landing a scholarship, junior running back Andrew Stefanelli, junior long-snapper Christian Carpenter and junior defensive linemen Azubuike Ukandu and Ty Tucker all were awarded scholarships in front of the team Sunday and the paperwork was finalized early Tuesday.
“These are the moments in coaching that make you feel really good,” said Edsall in a prepared statement. “Each of those five guys worked extremely hard for this and have earned it. They’ve put in the work in the classroom, weight room and on the field, and are truly deserving of this.”