COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Normally sporting an easy smile and a mild-mannered demeanor, which made Caleb Rowe one of the most approachable Maryland players, the junior quarterback assumed a much different persona Sept. 16. Seated at the front of the room as media members crowded around, the Terps’ new starting quarterback stared stoically into space. He didn’t make eye contact, didn’t offer up his normally insightful responses, and, really, didn’t seem particularly pleased to be there.
"I don't think [starting] is any different. It's football, it's what we came here to do,” Rowe said bluntly. “I don't feel any different pressure than I would if I was the backup.”
And that’s about how the next six minutes or so passed before Rowe mercifully rose, exited Tyser Tower stage right, and headed to his 1 p.m. class.
Of course, we could hardly have expected much more from the Landrum, S.C., native. Rower obviously didn’t want to demean the demoted Perry Hills, who struggled during the season’s first two weeks, bottoming out in the 48-27 loss to Bowling Green Sept. 12. He obviously didn’t want to make a huge deal out of ascending to a role that was practically his to lose entering fall camp. And he obviously couldn’t have been feeling particularly chipper after tossing two interceptions during his first three pass attempts at the end of said BGSU debacle.
Nevertheless, Rowe had to face the music after being tabbed as the next man up -- for the third time in his career.
Recall, Rowe started once during his freshman year in 2012, taking over for an injured Hills. He then started twice more the next season, ascending to the No. 1 gig in the wake of C.J. Brown’s ACL tear. And now he’s back at the helm again, supplanting an ineffective Hills.
Sense a theme here?
Offensive coordinator Mike Locksley didn’t come right out and say it, but hinted that while Rowe’s physical tools have always been readily apparent, he’s suffered too many mental lapses to assume the starting role based solely on merit.
“That’s what maybe gave Perry [Hills] the edge [during this year’s fall camp], the intangibles and other things we talked about. Each of our quarterbacks understands, if they’re given the opportunity to be the starter, that leadership comes with the position,” Locksley said. “I do see a different side of [Rowe] now that he’s been named the starter in terms of him preparing the way a starter needs to prepare. … The expectation is that he performs and leads in that role.”
The Sept. 12 Bowling Green game served as a microcosm for the mistakes that have dotted Rowe’s College Park tenure. After Hills was pulled during the fourth quarter, Rowe responded by promptly throwing a pass straight into a Falcon’s waiting arms. Later on, with the game spiraling out of hand, Rowe did it again, failing to look off the BGSU defender.
“Caleb is a guy that throws the ball really well. But he has kind of a gunslinger mentality, which is not what I want to see as a quarterbacks coach,” said Locksley, who noted how the passing game in general has to be more efficient. “You want him to make smart decisions. Then in the game, when he came in and threw two picks in two plays, that's obviously not what I want. We talked about it and I told him that you don't have to win the game in this drive. We'll learn from it. I've seen him have a pretty good last two weeks in practice so hopefully he brings it into the game.”
Rowe accepted full blame for the pair of picks. Still, the 6-foot-3, 220-pounder seemed to bristle a bit when a reporter inevitably inquired about his recent performance.
"Playing quarterback is a hard position. You have to learn to put things behind you and just play the next play,” Rowe said. “It was a hard situation but I have to be smart with the football. That's my job and I didn't do my job very well. I'm given another opportunity to go out and play football and help my team win. I'm not worried about last week, I'm worried about South Florida."
Terps’ head coach Randy Edsall said Rowe’s up for the task, mentioning how the gunslinger is “doing things he’s supposed to be doing as a quarterback now.”
In fairness to Rowe, however, an ACL tear suffered last October during a non-contact practice play stunted his development. Rowe, who tore the same left knee back in 2012, missed all of spring ball and offseason workouts before being cleared for August camp.
Sure, the quarterback declared himself “100 percent” at camp’s outset, but his play suggested otherwise. Rowe noticeably struggled for much of last month, misfiring on basic routes; failing to identify defenders; and underthrowing receivers downfield.
"Having gone through [ACL injuries] the last three years, whether it was Caleb, C.J. [Brown], Perry [Hills], and then Caleb again, it's definitely a tough recovery in terms of the work that has to be done,” Locksley said. “Coming back rusty, [Rowe] wasn't at full speed in the spring. He's done it before. As I've said, it was a pretty tight battle in preseason camp with those guys. He's continued to get better each week. With a knee injury, the more time you are given, the stronger you get and over time you come back strong from the injury. I think he's done well."
Rowe wasn’t making excuses, but admitted Sept. 16 the ACL injury may have set him back. He insisted he was healthy, but basically said he had to relearn how to stand in the pocket; feel pressure, scan the defense; and make the right reads.
“The thing you always have to understand is, when you have an ACL injury, and you come back from that, it takes some time not only physically, but also mentally, to overcome the questions you might have as an athlete,” Edsall said. “Until you get out there and you really do things and keep doing it, and you get more confidence and feel good about what you’re doing … I think that was part of [Rowe’s August struggles].”
If Rowe is truly ready -- bringing his fundamentals and decision making up to par with his skill-set -- the signal caller has a chance to succeed. Even against the rough-and-tumble Big Ten.
Fact is, Rowe can sling it, evidenced by previous-season flashes. During his very first collegiate drive, Rowe tossed a perfect 33-yard strike that set up a potential game-winning field goal against NC State. The next season, Rowe had a 332-yard outing against Virginia and a 287-yard day against Clemson, hitting a couple 60-plus-yard throws in the process. And during his four-game cameo in 2014, Rowe unfurled another 60-yarder, giving Terps’ fans a glimpse of their presumed 2015 starter’s potent right arm.
It’s an arm Perry Hills, for all his gumption, want-to and leadership, lacked.
“Perry’s a great kid, but I saw some things there … I didn’t think we were getting things done that we needed to get done for us to be who we needed to be offensively,” Edsall said. “By making the switch, it will allow us to be a little more versatile … we’ll be able to put more pressure on the defense.
“I would say there were some opportunities to [go downfield with the ball], and maybe they weren’t taken advantage of. If you just sit back there and don’t threaten people vertically, it makes it a little easier for [defenses]. We want to be balanced offensively running the ball, throwing the ball. But we also want to be balanced in our passing game where we incorporate our vertical reads, horizontal reads, play-action, three step, five step – all those things.”
Receiver Levern Jacobs, without putting Hills down, said he was thrilled about Rowe’s emergence. Maryland’s most productive wideout thus far, Jacobs suggested he’d love to have more downfield opportunities moving forward.
“I think Caleb has a pretty strong arm, and I’m excited to see what he’s going to do,” Jacobs said. “I’ve been working with C-Rowe for three years now, so I think that will help us out.
“He’s been waiting for a long time to be in the starting role, just sitting in someone’s shadow the last two years. It’s his time to step up and show what he can do as a quarterback.”
Yes, it’s Rowe’s time now. Time to show he’s more than just the “next man up.” Time to seize the lead role once and for all.
“Ever since I got here I never knew if or when I was going to go in,” Rowe said. “I've been preparing for this moment since I got here."