Maryland defensive lineman A.J. Francis said Tuesday that he considers Clemson sophomore Sammy Watkins and West Virginia senior Tavon Austin — both wide receivers — as two of the best players with whom he has ever shared a football field.
It’s taken only four games this season for Francis to add another wideout to that list: Terrapins freshman Stefon Diggs.
“He does things on the field not a lot of people can do,” said Francis, never afraid to speak his mind. “A lot of the plays he makes, there’s no word other than unbelievable. No way around it. There are two or three players my whole career who can do what he does.”
The Good Counsel product enrolled at Maryland as a highly touted recruit, spurning the nation’s elite programs to remain close to home. He saw NFL wide receivers such as Torrey Smith and Darrius Heyward-Bey start as Terrapins, and wants to be next in line. The hype preceded his arrival, which really hasn’t made his immediate impact any less impressive.
Diggs is second in the ACC in all-purpose yardage and ranks ninth nationally with 21.6 yards per catch. He plays in fast forward, a highlight reel of cyclone-like spins and Superman dives. Fair catches are rare. He’s a teenager and a leader, a quick study in the film room and on the field.
“That’s been one of the most impressive things about Stefon, how he’s handled himself and how he’s been a leader on and off the field as well,” Coach Randy Edsall said. “He’s cheerleading, he’s helping guys along, very upbeat and positive.”
Comparisons between Diggs and Austin popped up throughout the week leading up to Maryland’s 31-21 loss at West Virginia, and neither disappointed. Austin torched the Terps’ secondary with three touchdowns, and Diggs countered with two of his own, including a sideline-to-sideline weave for 56 yards that left Mountaineers defenders trailing like a wake behind a jet ski. He finished with 201 all-purpose yards, 113 receiving yards and ACC rookie of the week honors.
“He’s not the same kind of player as Sammy Watkins, but he’s so good as a freshman that it’s hard to believe,” Francis said of the Clemson star, who was an all-American his freshman season. You just see him get the ball in his hands and you know something’s going to happen.
“A lot of the time he’ll catch a punt at the 3-yard line, where anybody else you’d wonder why he’s catching that punt,” Francis said. “But with Stefon, it’s like, ‘Let’s see what he does.’ He’s a hell of a player.”
And yet Diggs only had three receptions against the Mountaineers. Edsall chalked the lack of touches up to circumstance, not wanting to overload Diggs too soon. He’s averaged 9.75 touches per game, though 56 percent of those have come on kickoff and punt returns. As offensive lineman Bennett Fulper said, “The more he touches the ball, the more likely something is going to happen.” In Diggs’s case, “something” usually means “touchdown.”
“I’m surprised at how well I’ve played, I didn’t think it would go this well,” Diggs said. “I love where I’m at, and I love what I do. I put a lot of time into this.”
Charismatic and energetic, Diggs has rapidly matured at Maryland. He keeps a “file cabinet” of every loss in the back of his mind, to be revisited for improvements each week. He’s interested in psychology and sociology, aiming to “impact the youth and change some lives.”
“He takes things in stride, he really does,” Edsall said. “He really gets the notion from just go out and do everything you can on any given play. When that play’s over, let it go and move on to the next play. He doesn’t let things linger. He’s a quick study. If he makes a mistake, he’ll come over and tell you exactly what he did wrong, and you can correct him. He’ll go out and give you everything he’s got on the next play, which is exactly what you’re looking for from all your players.”