On the eve of Thanksgiving, three days before his Maryland football team’s final game of the 2012 season, Coach Randy Edsall sat in his office overlooking Byrd Stadium and reflected on another year gone by in College Park. The Terrapins were, by that stage, already eliminated from bowl eligibility, mired in a five-game losing streak that grew to six with a 45-38 loss to North Carolina in Chapel Hill.
Over the past two seasons, the Terps are 6-18 with just three ACC wins. And yet things remain optimistic within Gossett Team House, with players and coaches alike bent on putting another injury-plagued season in the rearview mirror, confident that a solid foundation has been laid to carry out Edsall’s vision.
Even without C.J. Brown, the team’s projected starting quarterback who suffered a preseason ACL tear, the Terps began the season 4-2, with a three-point loss to Connecticut and a 10-point loss at West Virginia, then ranked eighth in the country.
Then came the second half of the season, and the deluge of injuries. Freshman Perry Hills, Brown’s replacement, tore his ACL in a loss to North Carolina State on Oct. 20, a game in which third-string quarterback Devin Burns also suffered a season-ending Lisfranc injury. The very next week, fourth-stringer Caleb Rowe tore his ACL at Boston College, and scout-team linebacker Shawn Petty became the signal-caller for a brutal November stretch run.
“The thing that’s probably as frustrating to me is the fact that, through the first eight games, you basically had opportunities to win really all eight of those,” Edsall said. “Say, after eight games, we could have been 7-1. There was progress there. Like I said, I think because of circumstances, and because who we were playing, it hasn’t turned out in [the games] we finished up with. We were right there, that close. That’s something now that we have to build on, now continue to work harder and continue to still understand that we have a good nucleus here, and we have to continue growing around that nucleus.”
That nucleus undoubtedly centers on freshman standout Stefon Diggs, who ranked second in the ACC with 172.4 all-purpose yards per game and posted the second-highest single-season total in program history with 1,896 all-purpose yards. He also had six receiving touchdowns, two kickoff return touchdowns and even a passing touchdown.
In what became a dominant refrain of his final few interviews, the always-quotable A.J. Francis kept telling reporters that any program with Diggs will be fine.
“I didn’t know what to expect out of him,” Edsall said. “I knew he was a good player, but I wasn’t sure how dynamic he was or could be. I guess you could say that’s a surprise, because you never know what you’re going to get out of those freshmen. Probably one of the biggest surprises was, being so young, you never knew how some of these guys would react. But really the mesh and the bonding of all these guys was good.”
But it’s more than that, Edsall said. It’s guys like Mike Madaras, who started seven games at left tackle as a true freshman, or Wes Brown, a teammate of both Madaras and Diggs at Good Counsel who rushed for 382 yards on 90 carries, putting himself in line for the starting running back role next season. Edsall also mentioned players such as running back Brandon Ross, who bucked the offensive injury trend by actually becoming the team’s leading rusher (85 carries, 390 yards) despite missing six games, or nose tackle Darius Kilgo, who will figures to anchor next season’s defensive line after recording 40 total tackles, five for a loss.
Culturally, it’s “been night and day,” Edsall said. After the much-ballyhooed offseason transfers, coupled with the constant media attention scrutinizing Edsall’s methods and style, everyone is finally “on the same page.”
“You don’t have people fighting you,” Edsall said. “Instead of people fighting you, you have people embracing what you’re doing. The issues we have are, some people might not even think of issues. Some people missing a class or late for a meeting. That’s going to happen.
“When you go to practice, you’re getting consistency. Guys are falling in line. Guys are doing the right things. Then when you see guys not doing thing, players are saying things, saying, ‘Hey, this is how we do it.’ From that standpoint, you feel better because really the foundation, for what you want to do, has been laid. Now what we’ve got to do is continue to coach guys up, continue to make guys better in all the phases of the program. Like I said, the foundation now, has been laid.”
Whether that manifests in actual on-field success remains to be seen. Fair or not, injuries put an asterisk on 2012, which will forever be known as the year when Maryland’s two-deep listed quarterbacks wearing Nos. 31 and 87 and attracted far more national attention for medical absurdity than anything else. The Terps spiritedly fought until the bitter end, even in blowout losses to George Tech, Florida State and Clemson and especially in the season finale against North Carolina, when Maryland built a 35-21 second-half lead before falling, 45-38.
Yet there’s still the lingering matter of those early-season winnable games, or even the season-opening 7-6 win over FCS William & Mary, or continued fan unrest, or Byrd Stadium attendance declining 15 percent, making Maryland one of eight BCS programs to suffer a double-digit drop in attendance.
“It’s never good to swallow,” Edsall said, referring to the team’s final record. “You’re that close. What could have we done in those games to get us over that hump? I’m very encouraged and very optimistic because I know we’re on the right track.”
And by all accounts, Edsall has become more comfortable in his second season, more relaxed and at home within Gossett Team House.
“It’s fun to come to work,” he said. “It’s fun to be around the guys. You can see, yeah they’re working hard, but they’re enjoying themselves. I think that they understand, this is the way you have to approach things each and every day. You see the difference, when you sit down and talk to the guys.
“There’s nothing different in terms of the structure, the accountability. Nothing’s changed. But the blueprint hasn’t changed. It’s the same thing. Everybody understood, this is way we’re going to do things, and the way we’ll do things next year in terms of structure and philosophy. Kids understand, it’s the consistency. Repetition is the mother of learning. The more you rep it, the more consistent you are, you’re going to learn and you’ll be able to be more productive in what you do.”