COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- The competitive portion of the Sept. 3 season opener may be over quickly. Heck, it was close to over when the contract was signed.
But don’t let Howard’s lowly status in the Football Championship Series division dampen the enthusiasm that is running rampant through the Gossett Team House. The Sept. 3 noon kickoff in the Terrapins’ annual Labor Day weekend lid-lifter is still the true head coaching debut of D.J. Durkin and that means a lot, even though Durkin won’t say very much about it.
“There’s going to be a lot of energy, a lot of emotion,” said sophomore center Brendan Moore. “It’s going to be amazing. As a team we’ve gotten closer and closer and closer and we’re just going to put it all out there. (Coach Durkin) brings energy to everything he does and everything we do.”
The 38-year-old Durkin, who did coach a bowl win at Florida so he’s already 1-0, was not as forthcoming, in maybe the only tradition he has kept from the Randy Edsall regime. “I don’t have any great statement on that other than as a coach you get involved in your routine,” he said at his weekly press conference. “Today’s a Tuesday and I’ve had a thousand Tuesdays in game-week before, and that’s what we’re going to focus on. Tuesday’s a work-day and we’re going to work on first and second down and have a physical practice out there. I haven’t thought of it that way.”
He went on to say what everyone in every football camp everywhere says this time of year – that it’s nice to have a chance to hit someone in a different uniform. Durkin wasn’t particularly dodging the question. He really is THAT focused.
And it’s hard to dredge up much exciting about the Sept. 3 matchup as the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference’s last-place team makes the 8-mile drive to College Park for the first meeting ever between the two programs. Howard was 1-10 overall last year, and 1-7 in the MEAC. Famously, they fell 76-0 last year at Boston College in a season that the Eagles weren’t exactly setting the FBS on fire themselves.
“We did a summer study on them and game-planned,” said Durkin. “Obviously we’ve spent a good deal of time late in camp game-planning…just like we would against any opponent we play.
Durkin likes their quarterback, junior Kalen Johnson, who threw for eight touchdowns and 1,174 yards in his nine games last year, completing 56.1 percent of his passes with nine interceptions. Howard’s Johnson operates out of a spread offense and can create on the ground, too.
“He’s a dual threat and they run a spread offense, but they’ll also mix in some two-back so they give you a good variety,” said Durkin.
One of those backs is sure to be Ricquaz Brannon, a 5-11, 200-pound sophomore who led the team last year with 341 yards on 101 carries, averaging 3.4 yards per rush and a team-high 31 yards per game.
Howard’s diversity on offense sets up a scenario Maryland coaches have to like – they’ll use a lot of different personnel and packages to match up with the Bison’s different looks. The Maryland depth chart, released for the first time Monday night, reflects some of that flexibility on defense, listing a starting nickleback or a weak side linebacker.
Should the linebacker get the nod, that’s either Shane Cockerille, the converted quarterback/fullback or returning junior starter Jalen Brooks, who is listed as a starter on the strong and the weak side. Brooks explained how it’s all good for the Terp defenders and their multiple positions and packages.
“We have more personnel than we’ve had in the past. We can put bigger bodies on the field or more defensive backs. (The coaches) trust the (starters and first subs) so you’re going to see a lot of players. In some cases, even the (third string), and that’s going to be true throughout the season.”
Brooks talked about how the new coaching staff has moved defenders around so much, not out of desperation but out of a plan, that there’s more versatility and accountability, not to mention a broader knowledge of the whole defense for each player. “Whatever they need me to do, I’m up for it. (Playing different spots) helps you grasp everything better. There’s a high level of accountability. If they put in a new play before practice, you better know it perfectly before practice starts or you’re going to get yelled at. You have no choice but to know the defense.”
Three Play Two
Three players are even listed at positions on both offense and defense – senior Will Likely, who has already played at corner and wide receiver to some acclaim (you may have heard about him. He was All-America.); freshman Tino Ellis, who is listed No. 2 at wide receiver behind D.J. Moore and No. 2 at cornerback behind Alvin Hill, and freshman Jake Funk, who earned a share of back-up safety duties behind Darnell Savage, Jr., and is listed fourth at running back.
“It’s more than just showing we (will play anyone anywhere), we are that,” said Durkin. “If a guy can play and help us somewhere we’re going to do it. If that mean’s he’s playing more than one position or on more than one side of the ball we’re certainly not going to limit ourselves based on that.”
That philosophy also carries over to the way Durkin and his staff evaluates starting roles, something that is “fluid” now on the practice field. The competition each day will determine who is atop the depth chart.
“To do it any other way is just incorrect,” said Durkin. “You’ve got to give guys an opportunity, to know that practice is always important. Today’s a Tuesday: This practice is really important. A guy can go out there and lose his job today. A guy can also go out there and win a job. Guys know that. We’ll always do that. I think anytime a guy thinks his name is written in permanent marker, his preparation changes, they’re going to back off a little bit. That’s human nature and we’re going to make sure that doesn’t creep into our program.”
And that brings us to the No. 2 quarterback situation. Perry Hills earned the starting nod – and leave the room if you didn’t see the blood-and-guts-tough-as-nails-former-high-school-wrestler winning the job with THIS coach – but who is No. 2? Well, on the current chart it’s freshmen Tyrell Pigrome and Max Bortenschlager, though admittedly senior Caleb Rowe’s lower body injury in camp hurt his chances. Durkin even admitted Rowe was only “probable” to play this weekend in the one little nugget of injury news Durkin let slip.
“Caleb is practicing but he’s not 100 percent,” said the coach. “He missed some time through camp and that’s indicative of why the depth chart looks the way it does right now. At the same time, those two freshmen have both really shown things at times that they can do some things that can really help us win, but not at a consistent level, as you would expect from a freshman.”
The depth chart, particularly at this high profile spot, will be reevaluated next week, but If Rowe is not going to go, everyone in the Capital One Field at Byrd Stadium grandstands will get their first looks at Piggy and Max.
And just to go straight to the source on why Hills topped out as the man, like he did last year, too, ultimately, this from Durkin: “The thing that really stands out about Perry is his work ethic and his competitiveness. Going to way back when we first got here in the winter workouts, we’re watching them work out and compete, we did some physical stuff and he had almost a linebacker-type mentality to him. And then you get him out on the field and you understand that he’s got real ability at quarterback, as well. Perry can do a lot of really good things on the field. He’s dangerous with the ball in his hands running. I also think he throws a great deep ball. I think he has a grasp of our offense right now. His leadership ability, he definitely has the respect of his teammates, is more important than anything.”
Ask the center, Brendan Moore, if this offense is faster than last year’s hurry-up spread, and Moore just laughs.
He and the quarterback are the guys in charge of keeping the pedal to the metal. “Our goal is around 8-to-10 seconds between each play, if not faster,” he said. “Every single person has to be lined up and has to be set so it falls on everyone’s shoulders to set that tempo.”
The 6-3, 300-pound Moore did have a confession for himself and his linemates –tackles Michael Dunn and Damian Prince, guards Mike Minter and Maurice Shelton are scheduled to start with him – about the whole system. “You’ll see us a lot, I’m not shamed to admit, get tired. We’ve got used to taking comfort in being uncomfortable. We’ve gotten used to it. We do it every single day. We know that our tempo is going to be too much for a lot of people to handle.”
And that’s the point. The Terps want to wear out opponents and Moore said that practice has made pretty good if not perfect in everyone running this tempo. “You learn how to do your job, how to do your job when you’re tired. If your lungs hurt, your legs are tired, you still have to do your job, and that’s what we do.”
Moore said fans would get a look at new offensive coordinator Walt Belt’s light speed offense Sept. 3. There is no plan to slow it down and pound the Bison, who allowed 403.8 yards and 37.1 points per game last year. Nearly half those yards (195.8) came on the ground.
The Terrapins are likely to take that tact, too, Sophomore speedster Ty Johnson is the first man up, winning the running back job in camp after rushing for 250 yards and three touchdowns as a true freshman last year. He also averaged 7.1 yards per carry, and finished strong with 87 yards and two scores against Rutgers.
“Ty has been just a consistent guy with his running ability, it starts there,” said Durkin. “He has done a good job with ball security. He’s a guy that can really put a foot in the ground and take it the distance. Ty is a good pass protector and he’s really good out of the backfield. He’s the total package.”
Durkin said the felt really good about the depth at running back, even with senior Wes Brown serving a three-game suspension for violating a team rule. Behind Johnson, the Terps have senior Virginia Tech transfer Trey Edmunds and erstwhile fullback Kenneth Goins, Jr., along with freshman Jake Funk. Expect to see all of them Sept. 3.
So what else will Terrapin fans see?
“I think more than anything you’re just going to see a different energy on the field,” said Moore, “(in) all three phases. We’re going to be aggressive on offense. We’re going to be aggressive on defense and just play our heart out.”
Meanwhile, over on defense, contending with the Bison spread – which sounds like a terrible idea for a dip – shouldn’t be a huge obstacle for Andy Buh’s defense. They’ve faced the spread all camp.
“It’s about reading your keys and not letting their motions and shifts mess up your eyes,” said Brooks. “You have to be calm, play your visuals, don’t be hopping around. Keep an eye out for anything that looks fishy.”
And incidentally, looks like Jesse Aniebonam won the starting “Buck” job – the hybrid linebacker/end – over Melvin Kiehn in one of the camp’s best battles. Both will play.
Another camp revelation, converted linebacker Cavon Walker, will get the starting assignment at defensive tackle over David Shaw. Walker is bigger and stronger (6-2, 280) than he was a year ago, but Buh has already said he’ll rotate at least 10 guys through the four line positions. Keep your program handy.
Likely is listed as the starting nickelback (and as a co-starter at wide receiver with DeAndre Lane), while Hill and Florida transfer J.C. Jackson are the cornerbacks. Denzel Conyers is all the way back from his scary concussion and will start at safety alongside Savage, but a host of youngsters are likely to play in the secondary, too, and they’re a big part of Pete Lembo’s plans for what promises to be a much improved special teams unit.
And since the Maryland defense cannot be mentioned without a tip of the helmet to All-Big Ten middle linebacker Jerrmaine Carter, Jr., this from Brooks, who plays alongside him one way or another on either side: “You always know that he’s taking care of his stuff so you never have to worry about him at all. He’s like a field general. He’s the commander out there. He knows his stuff and he brings it every play. I feel sorry for whoever goes up against him every play.”
Carter could be part of putting bison back on the endangered species list.