Spring Football Previews: Quarterbacks

Previewing Maryland's quarterback situation heading into the beginning of spring practice March 7.

After a merry-go-round of interception-happy quarterbacks and a whiff on the fifth-year senior transfer many thought would wrest the starting job in 2015, the Terps return two seniors eager to impress this month in spring camp in new offensive coordinator Walt Bell's up-tempo, spread offense. And they better, as it’s their last go-round after rocky careers to say the least.

Bell -- whose unit last season put up 40.0 points per game for the nation's No. 14 scoring offense, while amassing 500-plus yards in 11 games over two seasons at Arkansas State -- will give Perry Hills and Caleb Rowe the chance for a clean slate after neither got on track in 2015, and were benched/beleaguered last season. And so too were Terps fans, riding their madcap seasons, when even a fullback was pressed into duty because they were so ineffective. 

On paper, Hills appears the better fit for the Bell offense with his ability to run the option, which he did to the tune of 535 yards and three scores to rank second on the team in rushing behind only senior back Brandon Ross. And who can forget the day he hung 170 yards and two touchdowns on top-ranked Ohio State in Columbus, Ohio, last fall? If nothing else, he exudes moxie and toughness in the run game, where he was beaten and battered most of last season but kept coming back for more. He even ripped off a 75-yard gain from scrimmage.

But Hills continued to struggle (13 picks to eight touchdowns) badly with his decision-making, accuracy, and arm strength, and at times was benched for both Rowe and senior transfer Daxx Garman, who was equally ineffective and later injured and never made an impact as a Terp in his one campaign. Hills had trouble not only throwing the long ball (see several underthrown picks), but even short "gimees" (see screens at the knees/in the dirt) for much of the season, and his receivers/tight ends were a frustrated lot. Hills will need much quicker reaction/release in the new system.

Hills would finish the season with just a 50 percent completion passing percentage (90-of-180), and an efficiency rate of 96.9 in 8 starts. The Penn State game was particularly galling, a game hanging in the balance in Baltimore in which he turned the ball over four times himself, through the air and ground, in the 31-30 loss a week after Randy Edsall was let go. As he was at Iowa, where he simply threw it to the wrong jerseys – three times -- in befuddling fashion, twice with Maryland going in, and with Maryland hanging around on the road at the undefeated Hawkeyes in another wasted defensive effort as the offense stalled.

While Hills has the best zone-read option ability, Rowe is still the best vertical threat by far, but has seldom proven reliable with the keys to the offense in his hands. Rowe finished the season worse than doubling up his touchdowns-to-picks rate (a galling 15-6), while completing just 76-of-165 passes (46.1 percent) for just 894 yards in four starts. He saved his best (really, his only "best" all year) for last in the 46-41 win at Rutgers in the regular-season finale to end an eight-game losing streak.

It's hard to imagine, but his decision-making was worse than Hills, nor is he the "gym rat'/film guy" Hills is when it comes to preparation. But if he can get locked and dialed-in, as he did at Rutgers when he passed for 239 yards and no picks, while rushing for a surprising 107 yards, and not get distracted and easily off-track, Rowe clearly in the best option to throw the ball downfield. He has the best arm strength, release and accuracy, but still lacks in judgement, reading defenses and overall risk-taking.

Both struggled locking-in on receivers all season as well. And in the one game new Terps' coach D.J. Durkin really honed in on, the Michigan visit to College Park on Oct. 3, Rowe was just 8-for-27 for 47 yards and three picks in the 28-0 blanking, his worst career outing. Rowe never took "last week’s mistakes" and learned from them the next, save for seemingly the season finale when he led the comeback victory after ineffective starter Hills was benched after a brutal start.

Redshirt freshman Gage Shaffer (6-7, 212) has great size, a booming arm and showed good pocket poise in practices. But he was suspended for the final two weeks of the season for a University rules violation. And it's hard imaging the more statuary, pocket passer thriving in an up-tempo spread system. It will be an interesting spring for him, and whether any of the three check out by the end of camp after they see the final depth chart.

And if you are wondering if former quarterback Shane Cockerille, the Terps sophomore who was moved to fullback/H-Back last season, could get a look in Bell's new system, well, last we heard, Cockerille could be getting a look on defense this spring.

So we will monitor that beginning next week (Maryland has yet to release a spring roster, depth chart or injury report, and we know several Terps will miss spring following winter clean-up surgeries).    

But after throwing 29 picks to 15 touchdowns in 2015, well, things can only go up for the Terps’ quarterbacks in 2016. Bell’s system should be a quick read for all the guys, including freshman Tyrell Pigrome, who seems much suited to a ‘T’ to the new system. The quick, short passing game should favor all, as seemingly Hills and Rowe’s biggest troubles came when they had too much time in the pocket to decide, and more often than not made the wrong decisions in 2015.

The Terps signed another prep three-star quarterback in Indiana standout Max Bortenschlager, who has both pass-run ability.  

But bottom line, it will likely be the quarterback who makes the fewest mistakes in the new system -- and the one the new staff can trust the most -- to run the show in 2016, as the system should help prop both erratic hurlers up some.  

The other good news: All the Terps' top receivers return, led by graduate-school senior Levern Jacobs and sophomore star-in-the-making D.J. Moore, as well as pass-catching tight ends Avery Edwards and injured Andrew Isaacs, who is back from knee surgery.

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