To get the proper feel for what Calvin McCall is going through as Maryland's starting quarterback, imagine a fellow sophomore who does not play football. Make him an engineering major who took the basics last year, then was told to skip maybe two dozen prerequisites and join a senior-level course in physics. There will be 11 weekly exams, with at least 25,000 people watching the sophomore perform. And by the way, don't get anything less than a B.
"It's not fair to ask Calvin to perform like a fifth-year senior," quarterbacks coach Craig Johnson said. "But I don't have time to worry that my guys are inexperienced."
Maryland coaches say they feel McCall can learn its complex system, but the pressure on that development will escalate against West Virginia at noon Saturday at Byrd Stadium.
"Last year I really would have liked to have played," said McCall, a redshirt last season. "At that time, I didn't understand their decision. I do now -- and I'm happy with it. I'll have three years left after this season."
McCall has had to learn a new language, throwing out the terminology he learned in high school. What was called "toss-sweep" at Dr. Phillips High School in Orlando might now be "32" or "59," depending on the defensive alignment.
As Johnson knows and McCall is finding out, recognition is at least as important as execution. McCall's obvious running and passing skills are useless if he does not have teammates in position to block effectively or run the proper pass routes.
"The more knowledge a quarterback has, the more checks [at the line of scrimmage] he can do," said Johnson. "The more checks, the more passes, and the more protections he can handle.
"A lot of freshmen, when the heat comes at them, just throw the ball and get out of there. We've got to teach them to be tough, how to take that heat and still perform. And, above all, don't put your team in a bad situation."
That means throwing the ball away instead of yielding a sack that kills a drive or takes the team out of field goal range. Or making the proper check at the line that gets a blitzing safety picked up before he disrupts an otherwise well-conceived play.
"When I played," said Johnson, referring to his career at Wyoming in the early 1980s, "defenses basically had two coverages and about two fronts. With the zone blitzes now, guys are coming from everywhere. So you might see someone open short over the middle. Calvin can throw that pattern. But even if he's called the right protection he might look up and -- oh, no -- the nose guard has dropped into coverage."
In victories over Temple and Division I-AA Western Carolina, McCall met the major goals of all quarterbacks. He did nothing glaringly wrong: no interceptions or fumbles or poor pitches on the option plays. Johnson took partial blame for one of the two sacks, because he asked McCall to look for a specific pattern and it was covered.
Against Western Carolina, McCall not only made no major mistakes but also was a significant force. He averaged six yards on eight runs and nearly nine yards on 17 passes. Coaches regard yards-per attempt as the most significant passing statistic.
"So far, to say the least, I've been more than impressed," Johnson said. "For a first-year player, he's as good as anyone I've coached."
Johnson mentions Aaron Brooks of Virginia and Joe Hamilton of Georgia Tech as excellent quarterbacks who needed considerable time to mature. Hamilton has admitted to being in a fog about Georgia Tech's offense well into his redshirt season.
McCall recalled two situations this season in which he made a play he probably would not have a year ago. Against Temple, a defender suddenly popped in front of him on a run to his left. Knowing the tight end would be running a route nearby, McCall was able to flick the ball to him for a short gain.
Near the end of the first quarter against Western Carolina, McCall all but smiled at what he saw taking shape across the line. It was a blitz that Johnson had said to be aware of, because it was vulnerable to an option play. Sure enough, McCall slid down the line, kept the ball instead of pitching it to tailback LaMont Jordan and ran 35 yards to Western Carolina's 1.
What advice will Johnson give McCall before Saturday's game?
"West Virginia is a perennial bowl team," he said. "That's their expectation. So decisions have to be even sharper, because the margin of error goes down."