COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- And what did we learn at the Maryland football spring football game April 16?
Well, the offense is going to play fast, even faster than a year ago. The defensive secondary is as big a question mark as forecast after last season. The punting game should be better, but it’s a pooch-punt system. And Perry Hills hates playing “touch” football.
What it all meant Saturday afternoon at a sun-swept Capital One Field at Byrd Stadium before an unannounced crowd was a 51-35 Red (defense) victory over the White (offense).
“Every guy that practiced with us this spring, played in that game,” said first-year coach D. J. Durkin. “That’s what it was about for me. It was a reward for guys that…we’ve really asked a lot of our guys this spring, we’ve put it on them hard and today was a day to come out here and have fun.”
Perhaps defensive players – who could score points with turnovers and defensive stops – had the most fun, although rising senior defensive end Roman Braglio said no real “stakes” for winning versus losing had been discussed. In years past, the winning team got steak and the losing team hotdogs. Maybe just Braglio rights for the defense this spring?
“We haven’t been told anything yet but hopefully,” said Braglio. “(Defense) has made a huge jump from winter to spring ball to now. It’s incredible how much the whole team has advanced.”
And really, the Maryland defense, minus six starters (seven counting All-America corner Will Likely out all spring with a shoulder injury), had further to go. Playing a new 3-4 scheme and with the timely departure of defensive coordinator Scott Shaffer in the middle of spring practices, the defense had to lock in and lock down quickly.
“Losing Coach Shaffer was a shock and kind of tough, coaching change is always tough but we’re happy with Coach (Andy) Buh,” said Braglio. “It’s an attitude thing, the mentality of how we play and the coaches are bringing the best out of each player.”
Somebody got the best from Braglio, who had four of the defense’s 12 sacks. “This is not a tough defense (to understand),” he said. “Like anything you have to sit down and learn it. The coaches have been great answering questions and with Coach Buh coming in there was no issue. He fit right in and we kept moving forward.”
Durkin admitted that personally he had invested more time on that side of the ball the last two weeks since Shaffer’s unexpected departure for personal reasons. Buh has come on board with the same mindset and scheme idea, so the disruption was a minimal as possible.
“We’ve got a really good idea of where we’re at defensively, both individually and as a group,” said Durkin, who hesitated to single out any individuals in his postgame comments.
Another rising senior end, Chandler Burkett, had three sacks, running mostly with and against the second unit. The rest of the sacks – Buh tipping the aggressive Durkin system some – all came from blitzers. Defensive back Tene Samuto had 1.5, and fellow DBs Jarrett Ross and J.T. Ventura all had one, while Milan Carter shared one of Samuto’s sacks. Defensive end Cavon Walker accounted for the other QB trap, all made easier by the defense playing one-hand touch on the gold-jerseyed quarterbacks.
That rule (though Durkin admitted no injuries were a key Saturday) served mostly to add further difficulty to handicapping the quarterback race between Hills and fellow senior Caleb Rowe. Hills started with the first team and hit 14-of-25 passes for 102 yards and a touchdown, but he was sacked five times and the “touch” rule meant he rushed just twice for 15 yards, taking away the strongest part of his game.
“Yeah, I wish I was live all the time and at every single practice,” Hills said. “Sometimes those guys aren’t going to make the tackle and you can break a big one when guys just reach around. It’s pretty frustrating.”
Rowe, again showing off the better arm of the two, despite obvious improvements in Hills’ mechanics, was 7-of-16 for 161 yards and two touchdowns, including a 63-yard catch-and-run to Jacquille Veii in the fourth quarter that brought the White team to within 38-35 of the Red.
Hills’ TD came in the third quarter, zipping an NFL Films-quality spiral that dropped right into Malcolm Culmer’s hands for a 40-yard score.
Third-string Gage Shaffer also got a lot of work, hitting 3-of-10 passes for 64 yards. He actually had two scoring tosses – his 51-yard to Lavern Jacobs and a horrid interception by Antwaine Carter on a quick out deep in his own territory that was an automatic seven points for the defense, by rule.
Levern Jacobs, on the second unit to start the proceedings, was a standout with five catches for 112 yards and two touchdowns. Besides the 51-yarder from Shaffer that tied the score at 14-14 in the first quarter, he also had a 48-yarder from Rowe that tied the game at 7-7.
He split through the linebackers and the secondary on a seem route and the Rowe-throw was perfect, hitting him in stride, turning a routine play into a long score to highlight both the offense’s quick-strike potential and the problems in a secondary minus all four 2015 starters with Likely sidelined.
“Guys are going out there and making plays and that’s how you win games,” said Hills. “We want to make at least 12 big plays a game and that’s a backbreaker for a defense.”
Hills and Rowe both credited offensive coordinator Walt Bell with quickly bringing them up to speed this spring. Their work stretched back to frequent winter meetings with the new coordinator and Rowe even said the entire offense had been installed by the third spring practice.
“I don’t think we’ve ever been further along after 15 practices,” said Rowe, heading into his fifth-year.
Durkin kept a Terrapin tradition alive coming out of spring practice, staying mum on the Maryland starting quarterback. “We’re going to keep that competition going into August. Caleb and Perry are both doing a great job. They’ve made improvements throughout the spring, and we’ve also got some freshman coming in this summer that are going to have some say in that competition.”
Under Wraps And Jobs Up For Grabs
Of course the full offense wasn’t on display. Without the QBs running the full read-option, the Terrapins found another way to chew up chunks of the ground. Rising sophomore Ty Johnson was a standout with 167 yards on 11 rushes, including nearly 100 yards alone on two draw plays. He had 64 yards and scored on one of those two plays, bursting through the left side, getting to the sideline and out-running the defense for a 64-yard score that put the White (offense) up 21-14 in the first quarter before Antwaine Carter’s interception on the next series.
Cornerback Alvin Hill opened the scoring, his fumble recovery on the first series worth seven points. Hill was among many defensive backs active near the line of scrimmage. He had four tackles. Reserve DB Samuto had a team-high eight tackles, including those 1.5 sacks.
Corner Jarrett Ross had five stops, including two tackles for loss.
Up front reserve end Brett Kulka had four tackles, as did freshman Adam McLean, also coming off the bench. McLean just missed a real highlight, dropping an interception in the fourth quarter.
“One of the biggest thing that the coaches always talk about is that effort will fix a lot of things,” said middle linebacker Jermaine Carter, Jr. “Defensively, I want us to improve on running to the ball, I know I need to improve there. Maximum effort will fix things we mess up.”
Speaking of maximum effort, Terrapin fans are going to love true freshman Jake Funk. The 5-11, 197-pounder usually runs it right up the gut where he got most of his 42 yards on 15 carries. Wearing No. 34, he’s reminiscent visually of Steve Suter, though he doesn’t have Suter’s breakaway speed.
Wes Brown started at running back in the one-back set and had 35 yards on seven rushes, including one 13-yarder. Transfer Trey Edmunds had 24 yards on eight rushes, and looked smooth around the ends.
Rowe actually out-gained Hills thanks to a 14-yard scramble for a first down. He had 17 rushing yards on two carries.
As for the competition, Hills said it’s not just at quarterback. “There’s a lot of competition on the team. That’s what coaches keep preaching to us. Go out and compete. We compete in every single thing we do, whether it’s weight room or class room, everything, and it really brings the best out of everyone.”
Even with shorter quarters (12 minutes) and a clock that ran continuously much of the game, the Terrapins got off 97 plays (albeit split over two-plus offensive units). At times, the Terps were too fast for their own good, picking up at least three procedure penalties for not getting set.
“We have a ways to go to completely understand the tempo we’re going to play at but we made great strides throughout the spring,” said Durkin. “At times today it looked good, at times it didn’t look so good. Really overall I’m proud of our guys, not just what they did today, but all spring.”
Another job definitely open is at punter where everyone is excited about the potential of Australian import Wade Lees. Lees punted seven times for a 38.1-yard average, including two inside the 20-yard line and a long of 44 yards. Like all the punters, he was using a rugby-style running wind-up, something the Terrapins have never employed full time before.
Rising sophomore Nick Pritchard punched up the best numbers, punting four times for a 41-yard average and a long of 50. Nicholas Rubinowicz (51.0), Lee Schrader (39.0) and Daniel Sutton (34.0) all each got one punt, pointing to Durkin’s desire to play everyone.
Adam Greene missed his lone field goal attempt (from 45 yards) but was perfect on PATs, as was backup Sutton.
Levern Jacobs led the receivers with five receptions for 112 yards and the two scores. Culmer added four grabs for 68 yards and his score. Taivon Jacobs had three for 27; Veii two for 72 and a score; Michael Cornwell two for 16; DJ Moore two for 12, and six more players had one catch.
Durkin said he wouldn’t be handing out any spring awards. “Our guys get daily feedback, feedback to the minute,” he said. “The guys that are really improving, they’ve already been pointed out and I’m sure I’ll them out again in the next team meeting. It’s just really about the team. The team has just really improved and done a good job.”
Durkin said he wanted to establish a “relentless energy” within the program. “It’s a way of life. I really believe our guys are starting to get that. If you measure from Day One until now, we’re leaps and bounds ahead of where we were.
“The biggest thing was trying to set the tone and the culture of how we’re going to do things and we’ve done a good job of that. We’ve just got to keep doing that.”