Before the Maryland football team opens its inaugural Big Ten schedule at Indiana in about four weeks away, it has the chance to gain momentum with a manageable nonconference slate. Here are five story lines to watch for in Saturday’s season opener vs. James Madison:
1) Find offensive rhythm
Maryland is returning 97.5 percent of its offensive production, in terms of yardage, from last season, and tapping into that experience will be crucial this season. Quarterback C.J. Brown is in his sixth year and fully healthy after two straight seasons of lingering injuries, and he’s hungry to get the offense on track after a largely inconsistent camp. Brown will have plenty of help: Stefon Diggs and Deon Long will be playing their first games in about 10 months, and Brown has an intriguing weapon in speedy redshirt freshman Taivon Jacobs at his disposal. Maryland topped 3,000 yards passing as a team in 2013, and there’s no reason Brown can’t hit that mark again this year.
2) Contain James Madison QB Vad Lee
Lee made a name for himself when he ran for two touchdowns at Byrd Stadium in 2012, but that’s when he was in Georgia Tech’s triple-option offense. After transferring to James Madison, he will have plenty of chances to prove himself as a passer against Maryland’s deep, veteran defensive unit. He has good size and strength at 6 feet 1, 215 pounds, and is a threat to scramble — so look for Maryland limit Lee’s running lanes and to try and get pressure off the edge with pass rushers like lineman Andre Monroe (9.5 sacks in 2013) and sophomore linebacker Yannick Ngakoue.
3) Keep a clean bill of health
One of Maryland’s biggest accomplishments coming out of the preseason was limiting serious injuries. Only two freshman were lost for the season in training camp (freshmen Sean Christie and Nnamdi Egbuaba), but there is still plenty of football to be played. The injury narrative was central to each of the last two seasons — in 2012 the team went through four quarterbacks, while in 2013 the Terps suffered injuries at nearly every position during the middle of the year. But Maryland was also able to develop younger talent through trial by fire and can only hope to avoid another epidemic this season.
4) Establish continuity on offensive line
Maryland has four of five starters back on the line, and Randy Edsall was plenty vocal about the strides the unit made during the preseason. Veteran Silvano Altamirano rose to the occasion and won the starting job at left guard, but he will make his first start for Maryland. Michael Dunn will also be making his first appearance at left tackle in a game after moving from right guard to right tackle to left tackle over the past year. The team does have an experienced anchor in center Sal Conaboy (22 starts in three years). But depth remains an issue: senior tackle Jake Wheeler, who backs up Dunn, is the only other lineman on the two-deep depth chart with game experience.
5) Strike balance at running back
Although starter Brandon Ross is expected to get plenty of carries, it will be interesting to see how the staff platoons its talented stable of running backs on Saturday. Edsall has repeatedly said backup Albert Reid and third-stringer Wes Brown will have roles in the backfield and Locksley said earlier this week that he sees all three running backs as potential short-yardage and goal-line runners. Ross has been the team’s leading rusher the pass two seasons (he’s averaged 4.6 yards per carry in that stretch), while Reid is a ferocious runner who looked good in camp. Brown is one of the team’s most athletic players, and he has a nose for moving the ball. How the carries are split against James Madison will be an early indicator of what each player’s role in the offense will be moving forward.
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