Summer Maryland football preview: Offense


(Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Players won’t report to preseason camp into early August. But with Maryland spring football wrapped up and a 13-13 spring-game tie in the books, here’s a positional breakdown heading into summer.

First up, the offense.

POSITION: Quarterback

Spring recap: With presumed starter C.J. Brown still rehabilitating his torn ACL, transfer Ricardo Young took first-team repetitions throughout the spring. Coach Randy Edsall remained on his case for inconsistency, but it’s clear the physical attributes that made Young the 2010 Washington D.C. Gatorade Player of the Year still remain. He sat out last fall per NCAA transfer rules, so some adjustment is to be expected, but Young undoubtedly made strides this spring and likely enters summer as Brown’s backup.

“That’s what’s been talked about since Day One,” offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mike Locksley said. “A lot of people are acting like that’s new news. But there’s a base rule: You don’t lose your starting position due to injury, unless the player playing is playing at a higher level. It’s a natural progression that C.J. would be our starter. We’ve got great competition at every position offensively. The competition factor will always be there.”

Summer watch: The spring quarterback situation represents a mere shade of the anticipated state come August. Neither Perry Hills nor Caleb Rowe were physically able to progress past individual drills (Rowe did some one-on-one dropbacks toward the end), and the Terps bring in freshman Shane Cockerille (Gilman). Toss in walk-on Dustin Dailey, who worked with the second team this spring, and Maryland has six quarterbacks on its depth chart.

Edsall has said he hopes to redshirt either Rowe or Hills, though it’s not hard to see both taking a back seat this season barring any descent into medical absurdity. Cockerille also  needs some time, and it wouldn’t make sense to toss him into the fire, especially with three quarterbacks boasting college experience and a fourth – Young – looking  ready to receive some time. The competition therefore lies between Young and Brown. Remember, just because Edsall names Brown the preseason starter doesn’t mean the competition is closed.

The big question: Can Young challenge Brown for the starting gig?

Live experience with the first team should help Young develop a rapport with the offense, and he’s already very close friends with playmakers Stefon Diggs and Deon Long. Locksley shook off Young’s inconsistencies, attributing them to “a lack of experience and the speed of the game and the system.” Toss Young into a live situation, and he’ll likely flash more speed in Locksley’s zone-read system than has been displayed while wearing the yellow non-contact jersey this spring.

Come August, Locksley said, there “shouldn’t be a question” that Brown will be at full strength. But can Young challenge the fifth-year junior for playing time? Questions  remain about Brown’s arm strength and passing ability, even if early reports have indicated sizable improvement since his last live experience in 2011, and Locksley seemed excited to ramp up the competition come August. Whether that results in Young receiving some playing time or even consideration for the starting gig remains to be seen.

POSITION: Running back

Spring recap: March and April saw the continued improvements of Brandon Ross, who transferred his late-season success into the spring as Maryland’s unquestioned first-string running back. Most of Ross’s success in 2012 came on zone read runs to the outside, using his speed to get around the defense and downfield. But Ross has focused on increasing his strength and vision between the tackles, adding a new power dimension to his game that resulted in 19 carries for 122 yards in the spring game.

“He’s getting better at that,” running backs coach Andre Powell said. “He’s a tougher guy. He’s more durable now. The thing we’re trying to get Brandon to do now is push through the fatigue threshold, raise that bar. He got in the game against some pretty good opponents and had success, so that’s got to help. I think most of it comes from maturity. The guys who were tackling him when he’s in Delaware [in high school] are a little different than the guys tackling him now. And so I think the bar gets raised, the competition does that, and I think he matures”

Albert Reid, the opening-day starter against William & Mary in 2012 who later faded into limited short-yardage duties, made similar strides and impressed with a 23-carry, 135-yard outing with the second-team offense during the spring game. Locksley has raved about his improvements, saying: “He’s a tough guy, brings his lunch pail to work every day, he’s got great energy. For a young guy I know we’re leaning on to for some leadership.”

Summer watch: This will be an interesting competition to monitor. Ross is capable of handling a full workload, but that’s without mentioning Wes Brown, who sat out the entire spring recovering from shoulder and ankle surgeries. Brown was Maryland’s leading rusher before being shut down for the season, allowing Ross to take over as the feature back. Reid will assuredly factor into the mix, as could speedster Joe Riddle as a potential third-down receiving option, much like Justus Pickett was last season.

The big question: Who gets the nod?

Edsall and Locksley have publicly stated their desire for an every-down back, and Ross appears capable of filling that role. Then again, so does Reid. And Brown, too. So how will the Terps even begin to manage playing time with three solid options?

“Those are head coaches’ decisions there,” Locksley said. “All three of those guys, Albert, Wes and Brandon, have all had their times. Brandon had a great North Carolina game, Wes had a great Temple game, Albert’s been Mr. Consistency and has been there throughout the year. He’s lost some weight, doing some great things this spring. That’s a position that will have great competition.”

POSITION: Wide receiver/tight end

Spring recap: The hype is justified. Stefon Diggs is still Stefon Diggs, the wizard capable of turning short crossing routes into 50-yard gains like he did during the spring game. Deon Long is a big-play threat, while Nigel King might have impressed the most of any receiver this spring. A host of second-teamers took repetitions, including Malcolm Culmer and Amba Etta, but given the potential electricity among the corps, it’s unlikely any will have much of an impact this season beyond the occasional reception here and there.

As for tight end, Dave Stinebaugh has the starting job locked down. Daniel Adams, who caught two passes for 33 yards and a touchdown during the spring game, has been working with the wide receivers this spring, but could move back to tight end once other wideouts get healthy and the position gains more depth.

Summer watch: Toss in a healthy Marcus Leak (broken toe) and the Jacobs brothers – Levern and incoming freshman Taivon – and Maryland will be stacked on the outside. A big question will be that third wide receiver battle between King, who got nicked up with a hyperextended right knee during the spring game but should be fine, and Leak. Despite playing just seven games last season, Leak caught 23 passes for 393 yards, second-most on the team in both categories. His 17.1 yards-per-catch was also over a yard better than Diggs.

The big question: What’s the ceiling for this group?

Diggs and Long are as sure bets as the Terps have this season, regardless of position. King and Leak are big-bodied home-run threats. Both Levern and Taivon Jacobs are speedsters. Having such weapons should also keep defenses from keying exclusively on Diggs, something wide receivers coach Lee Hull has worked on this spring.

“We expect to move him around,” Hull said of Diggs. “We can’t just put him in at one spot where the defense knows where he is, so they can key on him. It’ll be good. Also, it’s not just for him. It’s for Deon, for Nigel. Those guys all do things differently. If we have a pass play, and someone runs one route better than another guy, we might as well put him in that position. I think it benefits everybody. Now we can mix and match and find out what they can do best, and put those guys in that position.”

With such diverse threats, it’s easy for Maryland fans to get excited about this group. Even Ross admitted he wants to “compliment” the corps and “give them a chance to make plays.” This group will receive the most preseason hype, and justifiably so. But can they live up to it once the season begins?

POSITION: Offensive line

Spring recap: Certainly the biggest question mark on the offense, and quite possibly on the entire team, Maryland’s inexperienced offense line has plenty of work to do over the summer. The unit entered the offseason with a collective bad taste in its mouth, left over from allowing an ACC-worst 39 sacks last season.

Nick Klemm (four career starts), Mike Madaras (eight), Sal Conaboy (nine), Evan Mulrooney (five) and De’Onte Arnett (10) and Andrew Zeller (three) all have starting experience, but this unit is very much a work in progress.

“For your older fellows, it’s refinement of technique, developing cohesion up front, establishing a leadership role, giving them an opportunity to do that,” offensive line coach Tom Brattan said. “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.

“Going against a very good defense on a daily basis has been really good to us, because they force us to really know what we’re doing. When you’re coaching offensive football now, you put a play in, and then the play has a plethora of what-ifs underneath it. That’s what we’re working through right now.”

Summer watch: The only competition right now is between Conaboy and Mulrooney for the starting center spot, and Brattan hopes to have that resolved before the first week. Mulrooney sat out the spring game with a lingering hip issue, but started five straight ACC games as a redshirt freshman last fall. The Terps also bring in Under Armour all-American Derwin Gray, who could immediately challenge for playing time, and might get solid mileage out of transfer Silvano Altamirano.

The big question: Can they develop an “offensive lineman’s mentality”?

Depth might be an issue, but resolving that inexperience and building a solid starting five should be top priority for Brattan. Either way, the unit could be Maryland’s offensive X-factor this season. A strong and stable unit will both buy the quarterbacks time in the passing game to get the ball to those aforementioned weapons and clear holes for a solid stable of backfield workhorses.

“You never have enough good offensive linemen,” Brattan said. “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.”

Alex Prewitt covers the Washington Capitals. Follow him on Twitter @alex_prewitt or email him at alex.prewitt@washpost.com.
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