Maryland defensive lineman A.J. Francis gazed across the Gossett Team House cafeteria this week, looking out the windows toward an empty Byrd Stadium.
“Lots of good memories here,” a wistful Francis said, before turning back and smiling. “A lot of bad ones, too.”
None of the Maryland football team’s 17 seniors would dream of saying their final season in College Park has materialized as they expected. A torrent of injuries derailed a once-promising year in which the Terrapins initially had thoughts of a bowl game and redemption after a 2-10 showing in 2011.
Maryland, which started 4-2 but has lost four in a row, now closes out its home schedule Saturday against 10th-ranked Florida State, a chance to honor the seniors whose value may come years down the road.
“We definitely set a bar for the level of commitment we have for this program,” offensive lineman Justin Gilbert said. “I see it for all the other guys. We have freshmen who love being here as much as we do. It’s something I put on Coach [Randy] Edsall: making guys like to be here, play as hard as they can for him, making this program better.”
Maryland suffered its worst loss of the season last weekend, a 45-10 defeat at Clemson that dropped its record to 4-6. But the seniors believe the future is bright, even if they won’t be in pads and helmets to experience it. As long as the Terps have wide receiver Stefon Diggs, anything can happen, Francis said, pinning the program’s hopes on Maryland’s breathtaking freshman.
The seniors haven’t consciously considered their legacy. After all, they have two games left. But they know they can set a high bar for the team’s younger players, motivation that will prove valuable down the road.
“After these young guys, getting a chance to see what we went through, I think they’ll be more appreciative of every opportunity they have coming forward,” tight end Devonte Campbell said. “I think they’ll compete their butts off. We’re all in for a great show in the years to come.
“They all go out there and work hard. They all understand what it takes to compete at this level. Even the guys who might not be playing as much, they’ve seen what happens when a guy goes down. Next guy has to step up. They have a firm understanding of what it takes to be ready. Those two things will take them to the next level.”
Said Francis: “I’d rather win now than worry about the foundation for next year. It’s just how it’s gone. You can’t always control things. You’ve got to take things for what they are. The year hasn’t gone as we planned. Some of it is none of our fault, but you have to take it for what it is. But this week can change a legacy.”
Entering the preseason, freshman center Evan Mulrooney got the sense that Maryland’s seniors were fixed on avoiding a season like the one their predecessors endured in 2011, which concluded with an eight-game losing streak. Mulrooney noticed the way his teammates worked out and preached accountability. Things would be different, they said.
“They’re going to work like [heck] to do what they can to not have a season like the one before,” Mulrooney said. “With the start we had, it was evident. They were for real about it. The hard work they did wasn’t for nothing. It was so they could have the season they wanted to go out with. Unfortunately, with all the blows and the saga, they’ve still been resilient. They haven’t let it affect the season. We might not win every game, but they’re going to fight like crazy for the win. And if we don’t, the opponent will look at us and admire the fight.”
Now Mulrooney notices a different mentality. Eyes never look at the scoreboard. Last weekend against Clemson, for instance, cornerback Dexter McDougle ran sideline to sideline while returning a missed Clemson field goal before running out of gas. But instead of going down, he lateralled to a teammate just to keep the play alive.
Maryland was down 38-7 at the time.
The Terrapins still believe they can reach a bowl game, as unattainable as that sounds, and an admittedly biased Francis says an ACC title is within their grasp next season. But for these 17 seniors, Saturday represents one last hurrah at Byrd Stadium in a season filled with unimaginable twists.
“The senior class will probably tell the story for a long time,” Campbell said. “Even though you’re seeing it and we’re living it, it’s still unbelievable at times to think about the injuries, the things we’ve had to overcome. It’s almost book worthy. It’s been pretty surreal to be a part of it. I’m grateful for all the good moments, and even the bad ones.”