1. In general, what are the most significant changes you've seen in the Maryland program under DJ Durkin?
First and foremost, is the attitude change surrounding the program. Under the former regime, everything — and I mean everything — was downplayed, from rivalry games to individual accolades to general excitement instilled. Under Durkin, it's been a 180. He and his staff have instilled a charged atmosphere that's invigorated the fans, the players, recruits and everyone associated with the program. They're upbeat, positive and have lofty, lofty goals.
Secondly, there seems to be a greater attention to detail with the new coaches. Two of the assistants have had head coaching experience and are considered some of the best at teaching their respective crafts (Mike London, Pete Lembo). The others were highly respected or up-and-coming coordinators/position coaches at other programs and came in with good reputations (Walt Bell, Chris Beatty, Dave Borbely, Aazaar Abdul-Rahim, Matt Barnes). It's rubbed off on how quickly the players in the program have improved/progressed from last year. Even some players who have had minimal impact the last three years have busted out some this season, as the staff has figured out the best way to use them (see slot receiver DeAndre Lane, linebacker Shane Cockerille, etc.).
2. Durkin had been a defensive coach throughout his career as an assistant. What can Penn State fans expect to see from the Terps on that side of the ball Saturday?
We haven't even seen the whole scope of Durkin's defense yet, because he doesn't have the depth/recruits to execute all he wants to do on that side of the ball. That said, it's an active, aggressive 3-3-5 predicated on multiple blitzes, flying to the football and various different looks in an attempt to confuse offenses. The defense in and of itself isn't overly complicated — they want the players to read and react, not think — but they'll bring all sorts of different looks and get after the football. The key position to note is the BUCK hybrid linebacker spot. The BUCK (Jesse Aniebonam is the starter) is the defense's most versatile, athletic defender, someone who is asked to rush set the edge and cover in space.
3. Can you give us a scouting report on Walt Bell's offense and how it differs from what Maryland ran the past two seasons?
It's a totally different scheme from the past two years. Gone are the days of the pro-style/spread hybrid system with zone read runs, play-action passes and receiver screens. Bell's offense is a true up-tempo spread that is supposed to move at a breakneck pace and tire the defense out. Again, Bell doesn't have all the recruits/depth needed to execute everything he wants to do, but basically the idea is quick-hitter runs and quick-hitter passes, with occasional shots down the field when the defense sucks in.
The quarterback, operating from the shotgun, isn't asked to make multiple reads and break down defenses. He has to execute the short to intermediate throws, keep the offense moving and not turn the ball over. The backs are asked to anticipate the openings, get north and south, and hit the holes in a hurry. Also, note that Maryland will use three- and four-receiver sets, multiple tight ends and an H-back to give the defense a variety of looks.
4. Of the undefeated Power 5 conference teams, the Terps have (by far) the lowest FPI. With that in mind, how much of the early season success do you chalk up to improvement and how much to the easy schedule (to date)?
It's actually probably a little of both, which is why the heart of the Big Ten schedule will be so interesting. True, Maryland hasn't played against tremendous competition, and that certainly plays a role in the 4-0 start.
But it's also clear the players and the preparation have improved since last year. Discounting any physical gains, their on-field awareness and attention to detail are so much more advanced. They aren't committing dumb penalties, they aren't turning the ball over, and they're more patient and disciplined. New strength coach Rick Court has had a major impact as well, helping to build up and transform the players' bodies. The Terps had significant injury concerns in the past, and some of that was attributed to the former strength staff.
5. How do you see this game playing out and what is your score prediction?
I believe the Terps opened as one-point dogs in this game, which seems right considering how the season has played out thus far. Even though Maryland just trounced Purdue and PSU is sitting at 3-2, the game is in State College and Maryland hasn't beaten a mid- or top-notch team yet. That said, the Terps are coming in with a ton of confidence and believe they can hang with anyone right now. Eventually, depth concerns and talent level at certain spots may catch up to UMD, but it may not be this week.
I honestly think this could be a toss-up, but, heck, the Terps have played better than most figured so far and the coaching staff is always going to have them prepared. I'll say Maryland edges it out in a squeaker to improve to 5-0.