Maryland offensive coordinator Mike Locksley has found himself simplifying his system week by week, as one by one the Terps’ quarterbacks have checked themselves into the team infirmary. Now, with Shawn Petty taking first-string snaps, preparing himself for his collegiate debut Saturday against Georgia Tech, Maryland’s attack has been catered to Petty’s specific strengths, rather than forcing a true freshman and one-time scout team linebacker to adapt to the existing pro-style scheme.
The biggest adjustment for Petty will be adapting to the Terps’ terminology, understanding the play-calling system and learning reads in the passing game. The former Eleanor Roosevelt High School quarterback has impressed coaches so far with his ability to pick up new information, especially because Petty only switched to offense two weeks ago, but the pace is still slowed. Maryland operates on a day-by-day basis with Petty, learning with its new quarterback, evaluating how much he can absorb, digest and subsequently execute.
When Petty became the backup quarterback to Caleb Rowe after both Perry Hills and Devin Burns suffered season-ending injuries during a 20-18 loss against North Carolina State, the Terps developed an emergency plan, a system that Petty could easily run if needed.
That time has arrived, perhaps far sooner than anyone could have expected. An MRI exam this Sunday revealed a torn ACL in Rowe’s left knee, ending his true freshman’s season after one full game at Boston College and 32 seconds of play against the Wolfpack. Emergency has become reality in College Park.
“He played quarterback in high school and I think he really feels like he’s a quarterback at heart,” Coach Randy Edsall said. “I know he’s looking forward to the opportunity to go out there and play, and we’re excited for him. He wants to play really, really well, so he can stay as a quarterback. But again, I think it wasn’t like he’s never played the position before.”
One can safely assume that Petty, a left-handed bruiser who ran the triple option in high school, will be called upon to do something similar with the Terps. Locksley already has a zone-read option installed, one that came to the fore once Burns replaced Hills in the second half against N.C. State. It disappeared in Chestnut Hill, Mass., when Rowe attempted a season-high 42 passes, but Maryland will need an effective rushing attack to give Petty any semblance of space in the pocket.
“Some of the reason we’ve been able to run the ball is because we’ve been able to make some plays out on the perimeter with our screen game,” Locksley said. “That’s something that we weren’t necessarily efficient at earlier in the year. It’s always great when you can count on a guy back there that can make something out of nothing and be able to win the one-on-one battle. Wes [Brown] has shown the ability to make that guy miss or run over or run through a guy. Wes has been a benefit of some of the change at the quarterback position. It’s given us different skill sets and allowed us to do some things.”
Everything in this offense boils down to communication, from reads to blitz pickups to the pre-snap checks by each quarterback to the sideline, which almost always results in the headset-wearing backup quarterbacks winding their fingers to affirm the call. Earlier in the season, Burns and Rowe filled that role. C.J. Brown and current backup Brian McMahon took care of that at Boston College.
At the center – quite literally, given his position – of Maryland’s quarterback madness has been center Evan Mulrooney, who has held the starting job since taking over for Sal Conaboy during the Virginia game. Once Petty completes the Terps’ first play from scrimmage Saturday, Mulrooney will have snapped footballs to four quarterbacks in a three-game span.
“Everyone’s done a great job,” Mulrooney said. “Coach Locksley’s the best in the business in getting people ready to play. Petty’s done a great job himself, just getting comfortable with the scheme and adjusting to the calls.”
Adjusting to a new quarterback’s tendencies usually takes no more than two days, and it’s usually small things, like how loud their cadences are or how they take snaps under center.
“It’s the little things here and there,” Mulrooney said. “If we weren’t on the same page for a certain call, I’ll go to the sidelines and say hey, get this call, listen for this on this situation and stuff like that. It’s not really too hard of a process to get used to a certain quarterback.”
In just a short time with the offense, Petty has already won over Mulrooney with his maturity, a pot-calling-the-kettle-black situation coming from a fellow true freshman. “It seems like he’s been here forever playing quarterback, with how he holds himself in the huddle,” Mulrooney said. “He’s really ready to pounce on this opportunity. He had an awesome career at quarterback in high school, and go to out there, to be able to play your true freshman year is super exciting, and to do it at quarterback is even more surreal.”
The unseemly sight of four quarterbacks wearing headsets on the Byrd Stadium sideline Saturday, three on crutches and one in a knee brace, would be comical if it weren’t so absurd. But the Terps have rallied around Petty since they sat shocked during a team meeting and heard Edsall break the news that Rowe was out for the season. Defensive players check up on the offense, to make sure everything is running smoothly during practices. Quarterback Ricardo Young, a transfer from New Mexico who is sitting out this season per NCAA rules, has twice tweeted about how he is going to “coach Shawn Petty’s butt off to go and get us a victory.”
“It’s a tribute to our team,” Mulrooney said. “Everyone’s stayed strong. We’re not dwelling. Yeah, we do wish they hadn’t gotten hurt, but we’re not hung up. It’s not like we don’t have confidence in Petty. We have all the confidence in the world in him.”
Confidence will help morale. Communication will help produce results.