On crisp summer Saturday nights in College Park, quarterback C.J. Brown arrives at Byrd Stadium, his wide receiving corps in tow. Offensive coordinator Mike Locksley nitpicks route coordination with frustrating regularity, so the players work to quiet him down. When the sun sets, it becomes harder to see Brown’s spiral. Someone asks a staff member to flip on the lights, and then they pass and catch beneath the glow.
Stefon Diggs attends the evening sessions. So do Deon Long, Nigel King and Levern Jacobs. Anything to develop coordination with Brown. “Just trying to stay on top of our game,” Diggs said Saturday.
Starting his first game in nearly two years on Saturday against Florida International, Brown delivered what was likely his greatest performance at Maryland, scoring a combined five touchdowns, topping 100 rushing yards for the fourth time in his career – he’s still the only Terrapins quarterback to do so – and passing for a career-high 281 yards in the 43-20 win. For all the offseason speculation about Brown’s recovery from the torn ACL that sidelined him for 2012, the fifth-year junior quietly quieted the critics.
“Man, I’ve been telling everybody, that’s my boy,” cornerback Dexter McDougle said. “He’s back. He’s going to make plays, with his feet and with his arm. He’s going to do whatever he has to do. He’s confident in whatever he does. He’s the quarterback, he’s going to be the field general. Same goals and what not. I know he’s a determined player. He’s not living in the past. He’s moving on from his injury, and you saw that today.”
Brown spent the hours before the 12:30 p.m. kickoff visualizing his assignments, listening to music and reviewing the playbook. He wanted to avoid reminiscing about his last start, in November 2011, or – God forbid – the injury itself, suffered during preseason camp last August. At the team hotel Saturday morning, Coach Randy Edsall ran into Brown’s father. Clark Brown, he said, was more nervous than his son.
“For me as a coach, it didn’t surprise me, watching him practice all preseason, just seeing how focused he was and how he was executing on the field,” Edsall said. “I’m just thrilled for the young man. He’ll be better next week, the week after, everything else. It was good to get him off – I mean, five touchdowns, what he did running the ball, throwing the ball, the accuracy with which he threw it, the way he moved, taking some hits, doing the things we expect out of the quarterback was really neat to see and really happy for him.”
Riding the team bus the short distance to Gossett Team House, not even Brown could have visualized what came next. He completed three passes on Maryland’s opening drive and set up a 20-yard field goal. After another short field goal, Brown pitched a perfect read option to Diggs for a 26-yard gain, eluded a sack and hit Long by the right sideline for 27 yards, and deked the FIU defense for a 29-yard touchdown run.
Before the injury, Brown once ran a 4.4-second 40-yard dash. With the knee brace gone and the ligament cleared by doctors, he showed no signs of lingering effects. He broke off a 64-yarder on another option keeper that set up a 30-yard touchdown pass to fullback Kenneth Goins, wide-open after another blown assignment by the Panthers secondary.
FIU handed Brown some gifts, notably on a 66-yard touchdown pass to Diggs, who was so open he had time to stumble three times and still comfortably cruise into the end zone. But Brown made correct reads and improved on his accuracy, at one point completing 13 straight passes, more than the Terps had in five games last season. His best pass, a 25-yard touchdown to Long on an “ooze-route,” hit the junior college transfer in stride.
“The one to Deon, that was a lot easier pass to throw than the two wide-open ones,” Brown said. “I was just praying just to get it there, put enough air on it so they can run and make the play. Sure enough, that’s what they did. Stef was wide, wide open. I was just trying to get it in his hands and he took care of the rest.”
Stiffer tests will surely come, perhaps not during nonconference play against Old Dominion, Connecticut and West Virginia, but certainly beyond. Edsall stopped short of lavishing total praise onto his quarterback, noting that Brown made incorrect reads several times on options, but Brown’s teammates were perfectly complimentary at his comeback effort.
“He did a good job, came on strong, came out ready to go,” Diggs said. “He had a chip on his shoulder, ready to prove himself. We haven’t seen C.J. in a while. I never got to play with him. I knew C.J. was good from the year before, but who knew he was that good? I guess it’s his time now.”