Offensive line progressing, but still has ‘a long road to go’

Perry HillsWhen Maryland completes spring workouts with Friday night’s intrasquad game and officially breaks for summer, two starting battles will enter preseason camp still undecided. The coaches expect competition to carry over into August — quarterback and running back, for instance, will still be heated — but Coach Randy Edsall has named starters everywhere except center and safety.

The safety battle opposite Anthony Nixon, currently engaged between Sean Davis and A.J. Hendy, won’t be decided until game week, leading up to Maryland’s Aug. 31 opener against Florida International. But if offensive line coach Tom Brattan has his druthers, the center competition between Evan Mulrooney and Sal Conaboy will conclude long before then.

“I think it’s going to be based on who has the better summer, then I think we’ll make a decision sometime in preseason,” Brattan said. “I don’t think you want to go up to the week of the first game, still debating who your starters are. You want to have a front five so they can develop cohesion and chemistry. There’s a confidence that the guy to my right will be there, making calls and pass protections. As simplistic as it sounds, you have my back, I have your back.”

Mulrooney, who started five games last season as a redshirt freshman, has battled a hip injury throughout spring practice, sidelining him for competitive drills.  Team trainers cleared Mulrooney for individual workouts, but he likely won’t participate in Friday’s spring game. Conaboy, meantime, started the season’s first six games last fall, but that streak was interrupted by Mulrooney. The rising junior regaining the job against North Carolina for the season finale.

“Sal has stepped up,” Brattan said. “I think when Evan gets healthy again, I think it’ll be a competitive battle for the starting position. You never have enough good offensive linemen. Someone’s always going to get nicked or bumped. You never know when your number’s going to be called.

“We have to develop some depth and consistency with our starters. It just can’t be three plays good, two plays what we re doing. We need to evolve and have more of an offensive lineman’s mentality, that at the end of the game, we want to have the ball run behind us. Let’s pound the rock behind us.”

The constant quarterbacking upheaval could be blamed for an underperforming offensive line, which allowed an ACC-worst 39 sacks. Brattan said developing chemistry with a single quarterback can help matters, but he hopes the front five blocks regardless of who lines up under center.

Besides, inexperience is the larger issue. Only De’Onte Arnett returns double-digit starts, and he has logged 10. Gone are Justin Gilbert (18 starts) and Bennett Fulper (30 starts), but their replacements — Nick Klemm and Andrew Zeller — both have starting experience, as does sophomore left tackle Mike Madaras. Transfer Silvano Altamirano is still learning the system and adjusting to college life away from his California home but, according to Brattan, will be “a positive addition” down the road.

“I’m pleased with their progress, but I also know we have a long road to go,” Brattan said of the group. “I think the spring is important for your younger players, in the sense that okay, we’re not reading off a card anymore and we’re not running scout team anymore. You’ve been in the weight program now for eight months. We’ve had chalk talk now, you should know the stuff now and do it in a live situation.

“For your older fellows, it’s refinement of technique, developing cohesion up front, establishing a leadership role, giving them an opportunity to do that. We’re a work in progress. There are certain times where we’ve shown that we’ve got this. But there are other times when you watch the film, you thought we had this, obviously we don’t. We’ll have to go back and go over this.”

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