Previewing the Terrapin Offense

It all happens this Saturday in the Kickoff Classic from the Meadowlands: another season of Fighting Irish football begins. And while many Irish fans are still wondering just what to expect from Tyrone Willingham and his staff in their first season (sorry, I can't completely answer that one), Fighting Irish Insider will break down what to anticipate from ND's opponent in the season opener.

2001 was a storybook season in College Park. The man that was passed over time and again for head coaching jobs – some say for such minor reasons as, believe it or not, his physical appearance – comes home to his alma mater and instantly transforms a perennial loser into a national contender and conference champ. The only downbeat note in Maryland's campaign last season was the deflating defeat in the Orange Bowl at the hands of the Florida Gators, but even that seemed to be an afterthought. The main thing was that head coach Ralph Friedgen posted just the school's third winning record in 15 seasons, that he managed to lead the Terrapins to their first major bowl bid in 25 years, and that Maryland was the first team to dethrone Florida State as king of the ACC, posting a 10-2 record.

Now comes the real challenge: following up the Cinderella run with another successful year.

Friedgen will have to do it without 18 of the senior leaders that helped carry last season's team, and the spotlight will be on he and his football team right from the start. Not only because of the heightened expectations and scrutiny, but because Maryland opens up against the most storied program in college football, the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame.

It all happens this Saturday in the Kickoff Classic from the Meadowlands, and while many Irish fans are still wondering just what to expect from Tyrone Willingham and his staff in their first season (sorry, I can't completely answer that one), FII will break down what to anticipate from ND's opponent in the season opener.

OFFENSIVE OVERVIEW

With eight starters returning on this side of the ball, you would think that this season's offensive unit would be likely to be as productive as the 2001 version that ranked 16th nationally in total yards (439.73 per game) and put up 35.45 points each outing (12th in the nation). But the fact that this season's Maryland offense is expected to take a dip – despite returning four starters on the offensive line, three of their top four pass-catchers, and the reigning ACC Offensive Player of the Year – proves how pivotal departed quarterback Shaun Hill was to last year's success.

Not only was Hill the team's leading passer, he was also the second leading rusher, and after losing him to graduation a huge void was created. Less-mobile sophomore Chris Kelley was the heir apparent to the job until he tore his ACL in spring practice and was projected to be out for the bulk of the season. Kelley managed to work his way back into playing condition this fall and now a quarterback controversy has ensued, with Kelley trying to hold onto his original job by holding off a fellow sophomore, West Virginia transfer Scott McBrien.

Each QB option brings their own strengths to the table. Kelley isn't the caliber of passer that McBrien is, but he possesses more speed and quickness – an attribute that was central in the success of Shaun Hill last season. Kelley is also the most acclimated to Friegden's offensive philosophy. McBrien is slower on foot but is clearly the more accurate of the two through the air. He also has starting experience, having started one game and played in 10 others while at West Virginia. It's a close race, and one that will probably continue right down to the wire as Friedgen could wait all the way until game day to name a starter.

With the huge questions at quarterback, the load on whomever the starter ends up being was expected to be eased by returning ACC Offensive Player of the Year Bruce Perry. Perry led the nation in rushing early last season and ended the year with 1,242 yards on the ground, along with a strained abdominal muscle that kept him out of spring practice. Perry was given the green light to practice this fall, but pulled a groin muscle last week and is suddenly out 4-8 weeks. Now, not only is the quarterbacking situation clouded in uncertain, so is the vital tailback position.

Don't be fooled, Maryland is still going to look to run the ball – a lot. The true strength of this offense is the line, with four returning starters, and all five on the unit weighing in at over 300 pounds. First team All-ACC guard Todd Wike (6-3, 300 lbs) is an All-America candidate that anchors the line, while the other guard spot is manned by 302-pound junior Lamar Bryant. The tackles are just as talented, returning second team All-ACC performer Matt Crawford (6-6, 312 lbs) and sophomore C.J. Brooks (6-5, 316 lbs), who is actually looked upon as the more talented of the two. Departed center Melvin Fowler won't be easy to replace, but sophomore Kyle Schmitt is big (6-5, 310 lbs) and played in every game last season.

The line should be able to create running lanes for the two options at tailback, sophomore Jason Crawford and redshirt freshman Mario Merrills. At 6-2, 220 pounds, Crawford is a bigger, more physical back than Perry who will look to pound the ball inside rather than lose defenders with speed. Crawford ran for 146 yards on 36 attempts as a freshman, scoring two touchdowns, so he has in-game experience. Despite never playing a down of college football, word is that Merrills is actually number one on the depth chart. Merrills is similar in stature to the fallen Perry, weighing 180 pounds, and adds speed to the running back spot. Junior fullback James Lynch was used almost exclusively as a blocker last season, but Friedgen is said to be looking for more ways to involve him in the offense, and as the only experienced player in the backfield this could be his opportunity.

The receiving corps is solid but lacks a go-to guy. Jafar Williams and Scooter Monroe combined for just 53 catches last season, so one of them will need to emerge as a big-play threat. Williams is expected to surface as the primary receiver, but that remains to be seen. Junior tight end Jeff Dugan, who is thought of as one of the premier players at his position in the ACC, returns but is used mainly as a blocker.

The passing game is going to be crucial and heavily dependent on how effective either Kelley or McBrien is. While the successful ground attack of Perry and Shaun Hill received the bulk of the attention last season, the passing game was equally important. The Terrapins threw for 219 yards per game, just a yard less than they rushed for. This kept defenses honest and burned those that wanted to cheat in on the ground game. The offense is going to need to be able to threaten to do that again on Saturday, especially without a superstar like Bruce Perry on the field to improvise and create plays.

If neither Kelley or McBrien is ready to control the offense and beat teams through the air this Notre Dame defense, which surrendered just 132 rushing yards per game last season and has a secondary that was even better, will key in completely on the backfield.

Send any questions and comments to Dave Hicks – goodfelladh@yahoo.com


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