The result made all those hours and blistered hands worth it. Caleb Rowe will start at quarterback for the Maryland football team Saturday at Boston College. In less than a week, he accelerated from presumed redshirt to near-hero to first string, all because the three Terrapins quarterbacks in front of him each ended up on a surgeon’s table.
C.J. Brown tore his anterior cruciate ligament during the preseason. Perry Hills did the same last weekend against North Carolina State. Maryland then announced Thursday that Devin Burns, Hills’s backup, suffered a Lisfranc injury in his left foot that would, like Brown and Hills, keep him on the sideline for the remainder of this season. That means Rowe, a wiry freshman with a southern twang and pinpoint accuracy whose Twitter handle is @ROWEyourownboat, will try to keep the Terrapins’ offense afloat.
“The biggest thing we’ve got to do is keep him loose,” Coach Randy Edsall said. “Keeping him calm and relaxed. That’s how he plays. He’s got the ability. He’ll do well. He has the skill set.”
Rowe played for 30 seconds against the Wolfpack and promptly set up Maryland for a 33-yard, game-winning field goal attempt that Brad Craddock clanged off the left upright. In three plays, Rowe marched the Terrapins 68 yards down the Byrd Stadium turf, when seconds earlier he was wearing a headset instead of a helmet.
Last-second comebacks are nothing new for Rowe. Playing his high school rival, the sky unleashing a torrential rain, Rowe went 80 yards in 40 seconds to win the game. When he replaced Burns at the Maryland 25-yard line with 32 seconds left against N.C. State, his offensive linemen looked into his eyes and knew. “We could tell you were going to take us down the field,” they later told him, according to his father.
The first Football Bowl Subdivision player to come out of Blue Ridge High in South Carolina, according to Dave Rowe, Caleb’s first foray into quarterbacking is a story usually reserved for Hollywood. Rowe was a wide receiver in fourth grade. During one practice, the coach overthrew him. The ball squirted away, bouncing to a chain-link fence 35 yards away. Rowe picked up the ball and whizzed a spiral straight into the coach’s chest. “Did you see that?” the coach said to an assistant. Two days later, Rowe became the quarterback.
The family moved to South Carolina in seventh grade, and Rowe joined the Blue Ridge varsity team his sophomore year. Then, for three seasons in a rural town on the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, he became the star.
In his first game as a 10th-grader, he threw for 550 yards and six touchdowns. He hovered around a 65 percent completion rate throughout high school, averaging around 30 touchdowns and four interceptions per season. Once, in ninth grade, Rowe stared down an oncoming blitz, unable to find room to throw overhand, so he completed a 15-yard pass behind his back, a perfect spiral.
“He’s having fun. He’s enjoying it. He’s playing the game like it’s supposed to be played,” Coach Wade Cooper said. “It’s contagious. He throws the long touchdown pass and sprints down the field to chest bump the receiver. If we have a great play or a successful series, he’s the first one congratulating the offensive line. He’s just that kind of kid.”
When it came time to evaluate offers, Dave and Caleb embarked on a 10-day tour, visiting Clemson, South Carolina, N.C. State and Wake Forest, among others. Maryland wound up being the best fit.
Before last Saturday, Rowe was buried on the depth chart, working the two-minute drill in case emergency scenarios arose and biding his time in seven-on-seven setups during practice. Then, with Hills relegated to a training table inside Gossett Team House and N.C. State clinging to a 20-18 lead, Rowe was summoned from the sideline to replace Burns late in last Saturday’s game.
Watching on television back home in South Carolina, the Rowe family went crazy. They tackled the couch and rolled on the floor, jumping and screaming as Rowe went into overdrive. It was the beginning of a journey, Dave later said, one that Caleb honed in the driveway playing catch with his brother, throwing spirals so tight that his father heard the football slice through the air from inside the house.