With spring football practice beginning Saturday, here are some story lines and players to watch as Maryland enters its fourth season under Coach Randy Edsall and its maiden voyage into the Big Ten. First up, the offense. Defense and special teams come next.
Spring outlook: Despite the clamoring of many fans who believe someone with a stronger arm would be better suited to handle Maryland’s stable of talented wide receivers, sixth-year senior C.J. Brown enters this spring firmly entrenched as the starter, ready to ride out his winding college career. For the moment, Brown is again healthy, having shaken off everything that plagued him in 2013, from the concussion suffered against Florida State, the vague “trunk” issues at Wake Forest and lingering effects from his torn ACL. Now, in year three of offensive coordinator Mike Locksley’s system, he can take this spring to improve on the finer parts of his game.
Behind him, the backup situation got clearer when Ricardo Young decided to graduate rather than return for one final season, so it’s down to rising junior Caleb Rowe and redshirt sophomore Perry Hills, provided redshirt freshman Shane Cockerille doesn’t make a jump and inject himself into the fray.
Key question: What leaps will Brown make in his sixth season?
Unquestionably the offensive MVP last fall, Brown rushed for 12 touchdowns and passed for 13 in 11 games. His completion percentage (58.9) could be better for someone who doesn’t attempt a lot of deep balls, and his zone reads at times were spotty. But according to Locksley, Brown’s anticipated improvements fall more on the mental side.
“I’m hoping that he becomes obviously more of a student of the game, understanding the preparation that goes along with getting into the head of the defensive coordinator, studying your opponent so you know pre-snap what they’re trying to do to you,” Locksley said. “Being a sixth-year guy, he’s seen a lot of different things. Now it’s a matter of taking what he knows form a conception standpoint and applying it by understanding defenses. To me, that’s the final piece of the puzzle for him. Then just continuing to develop and tweak his footwork in the passing game, minimizing the missed reads in the zone read stuff to be a total player for us.”
One to watch: Hills, who redshirted last fall while Rowe played backup, now enters spring as the co-backup with his one-time classmate. As Locksley noted, Rowe saw significant time in seven games last season, passing for 989 yards and five touchdowns, but Hills clearly demonstrated enough intangibles as a freshman in 2012 to justify starting as a true freshman. With both healed from their torn ACLs suffered in 2012, Hills and Rowe will compete to serve behind Brown, so keep watch over the former, who was limited throughout last summer and hasn’t appeared before reporters in nearly 18 months.
Injuries: None, for once.
Spring outlook: The running back situation enters another season with little clarity, and arguably the situation just got even more muddled. The biggest story this spring will be the return of Wes Brown from his university-imposed, semester-long suspension stemming from a summer encounter with police, but plenty of other experienced running backs are alongside him competing to impress the staff. Brandon Ross (776 yards, 4.7 yards per carry) was better last season at power running between the tackles and had his moments, while Albert Reid (294 yards, 4.2 yards per carry) has still yet to be handed a full-time load but is highly regarded among the coaches for his leadership. Toss in Jacquille Veii and Joe Riddle, both listed as co-backups with Brown behind co-starters Ross and Reid, and you have seven running backs listed on the depth chart right now.
“We need to add one more,” running backs coach Andre Powell said, somewhat jokingly but not really.
Key question: Will the logjam sort itself out this soon?
Probably not in the spring, barring injuries, of which there are currently none. Expect this battle, most likely a three-horse race between Ross, Reid and Brown, to continue through the summer and into the opener against James Madison. Asked about the crammed situation, Locksley bristled at the assertion.
“You look at most Division I depth charts, there are going to be four running backs on scholarship that you recruited with the intent of them being able to be the guy,” he said. “A lot of people make a lot out of it, but to me that’s pretty normal.”
While perhaps not the Locksley-coached Illinois quartet of Pierre Thomas, Rashard Mendenhall, Mikel Leshoure and Daniel Dufrene, the coordinator still enjoyed having such depth to foster competition, of which there will be plenty.
“They all should want to play,” he said. “They all should want to be the guy.”
One to watch: Wes Brown. Had Brown not been linked to a non-fatal Baltimore shooting, pushed a police officer when questioned about it and embarked on a mad dash across campus that resulted in his arrest and suspension, the Good Counsel graduate might very well have been Maryland’s starting running back last season. At the same time, he might not have undergone the supposed character transformation the coaching staff has raved about since he returned to school this semester.
“I think Wes had a lot on his plate,” Powell said. “Just talking with Wes, while he was out, Wes had taken on a lot of responsibilities. What he had in his mind, he had a vision in his mind with things he was trying to do outside of football. It was a noble plan and if it had worked it would have been a brilliant plan. As it worked out, things didn’t fall into place. Once he took off that weight and realized how much he missed being here, because I think he realized, by being here he would help … his plan would’ve worked better. I think he’s just glad to be back. I think he’s excited. So are we.”
Brown’s production his freshman season – 90 carries, 382 yards, two touchdowns – was spotty at best and defined by injury at the end, but with a new perspective on life, borne from giving motivational talks to youth-league teams, will that translate onto the field, where only production will give him playing time?
Spring outlook: Heavy hitters Deon Long and Stefon Diggs, both of whom could realistically jump to the NFL after this season if they show enough on the field, will be sidelined this spring as they recover from broken legs, but that opens the door for other Terps to prove themselves. Slot receiver Levern Jacobs was Maryland’s leading pass-catcher last season. Nigel King was solid in spurts but inconsistent in others, while Amba Etta-Tawo endured some pass-catching issues but has shown the athletic ability to compete at this level. Only one other receiver – Malcolm Culmer – caught a pass last season, but rising redshirt freshman Taivon Jacobs is expected to add some more competition to the mix. And this is all without mentioning Marcus Leak, who caught 23 passes for 393 yards in 2012 and returns to the team from a year-long personal leave.
Key question: Can the anticipated backups keep improving?
If Diggs and Long heal properly, they will open the season as first-stringers. Amazingly, despite missing nearly half the season, Diggs finished second on the team in catches and Long was fourth. But as last season demonstrated, the Terps can never have enough depth. And given the continued rehabilitation process, King, Etta-Tawo, Culmer and the Jacobs brothers will have plenty of chances to progress this spring.
One to watch: Marcus Leak. Like Wes Brown, Leak needed some time away from the program to gain some perspective, and it sounds like Maryland somewhat wanted him to do that. But since his return, the coaching staff has done nothing but rave about his maturation.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt that that’s what took place,” Coach Randy Edsall said. “When you have a chance to sit down and talk with those guys in a one-on-one situation, talk to them about what they went through, what happened, their feelings as they were sitting there without it, it makes you grow up real fast. It does mature you. You can see that. It’s good that I think they’re sharing their experiences with their teammates.”
Now, whether Leak can get back into playing shape quickly enough this spring to impress is another story. But the Terps certainly have high hopes for the 6-foot Charlotte native.
Injuries: Diggs (broken leg) and Long (broken leg) are both out for spring practices, though Diggs could progress to individual work by April. DeAndre Lane (hamstring) will be limited.
Spring outlook: Leading the least experienced position group on the entire Maryland roster, tight ends coach John Dunn has much work to do with a group containing mostly players with special teams experience and little else. P.J. Gallo appeared in all 13 games last season and Andrew Isaacs did so in 11, but neither has ever caught a college pass. In past years, veterans have been the clear-cut starters, multi-year staples like Matt Furstenburg and Dave Stinebaugh.
Key question: With little experience, who emerges?
It’s open season for the starting job. Gallo and Isaacs have the inside track as co-starters on the spring depth chart, but Dunn made it clear that no one has put a stranglehold yet, which makes sense because no one has spent significant time anywhere other than blocking on returns and kicks.
“This is the first year when it’s like, ‘Okay, who wants it?’ ” Dunn said “P.J. has played a little bit. When Dave went down last year P.J. and Andrew split some time. But game experience is different from being the guy. Any guy on this list. There’s five guys. Any of them can bet he guy. It’s not a two man, three man race. It’s a five man race and we got to come out with a guy.”
One to watch: Derrick Hayward. This time in 2013, Hayward was a three-star prospect from Wicomico (Md.) High School coming to Maryland to play linebacker. He was all-conference and all-state there, but over the summer the Terps moved him to tight end, where he now resides as a backup.
“Tight end is a very unique position, because there’s not a ton of true tight ends out there who do everything,” Dunn said. “In high school you’re a receiver or an underweight offensive linemen. In the NFL, they’re drafting other players besides tight end and making them tight ends. Derrick played tight end in high school as well as defense. We’re excited about him because he brings a height [6 feet 5], length, the ball skills, he can run. He hasn’t done it. That’s what spring is for. We’ve got to do it. I think he brings some skill sets that are unique to us.”
Spring outlook: So much upheaval in 2013 bleeds into a more stable spring, but it won’t be for long given the recruiting class entering this summer. Still, only the returners will take the field on Saturday, so they will be given every opportunity to improve within the system. This means center Sal Conaboy keeping a stranglehold on a job he probably won’t lose, tackles Michael Dunn and Ryan Doyle continuing their progression from backups to players who started all 13 games last season, and right guard Andrew Zeller trying his best to hold on to the starting gig for as long as possible. Last season, the Terps withstood position switches, injuries and the midseason departure of starting left tackle Mike Madaras to actually lessen their sack rate by about one per game.
Key question: The cavalry is coming, so who will be ready?
“It’s important because we needed linemen,” Locksley said Wednesday. “Bad. That was a point of emphasis for us. The fact that he is a big-time talent was the icing on the cake.”
Here Locksley was discussing the recruitment of local five-star Damian Prince, Maryland’s biggest signing for its class of 2014, but this might also apply to Derwin Gray and Larry Mazyck, two of the other hyped incoming prospects. Gray is already enrolled but will miss the spring with a shoulder injury, while Mazyck isn’t coming until the summer because of an academic issue. Still, all three are expected to challenge for starting jobs upon their recovery/arrival, and the current crop knows this.
One to watch: Evan Mulrooney. The center moves to left guard this spring to compete alongside Silvano Altamirano for the starting job and the outlook is prosperous. A media favorite given his candidness and humor, Mulrooney was a left tackle at his high school in Delaware and possesses the skills necessary to make the jump.
“He’s done it already,” Locksley said. “This won’t be the first time he’s played some guard in a pinch. When we get in the scrimmages we’ve done a good job of mixing and matching to make sure that if something were to happen, when you play center, you’re like the quarterback up front. All the blocks you make as a center you make as a guard. I think it’ll be a seamless transition.”
Injuries: Derwin Gray (shoulder) is out for the spring.