Every day until camp begins on Aug. 5, we’ll take a position-by-position look at the Maryland football team. So far, we’ve reviewed the defensive backs, linebackers, defensive line, special teams, offensive line, wide receivers/tight ends and running backs. Last up, the quarterbacks.
Returning starters: Perry Hills (but he likely won’t start this season).
Actual starter: C.J. Brown.
Key backups: Ricardo Young, Caleb Rowe, Hills, Dustin Dailey.
Incoming: Shane Cockerille.
Competition: By all accounts, C.J. Brown will open the season as the Maryland football team’s starting quarterback. That, according to the coaching staff, has been the plan ever since the clock ran out in the season finale against North Carolina last November. Any competition this August, at least as perceived by Coach Randy Edsall and his assistants, will be at backup quarterback. Of course, injuries can happen and players can emerge, but how likely is it that someone will challenge Brown for the starting job over the next month? For playing time, perhaps. Ricardo Young had an up-and-down spring but clearly knows offensive coordinator Mike Locksley’s system, possesses Division I-caliber athleticism and has tremendous chemistry with wide receivers Stefon Diggs and Deon Long. Caleb Rowe probably has the strongest arm of anyone on the team, and Perry Hills, despite whatever you may think about his performance, has started more college games (seven) than Brown, Young, Rowe and the rest combined (six). Suddenly, for all their calamitous maladies last season, the Terrapins have options if something — or four things — goes wrong.
1) Can C.J. Brown recover his speed and improve his accuracy? The weapons are there. Everyone knows it. Here’s Diggs, on the cover of Maryland’s media guide. There’s Long, gliding like a gazelle across the middle. But what of the man tasked with getting them the ball? Brown claims he’s 100 percent, free from the knee brace, daily treatment no longer required. He can sprint, he can stop, he can cut, just like the old days of his 4.4-second 40-yard-dash speed. Okay, so Brown has his speed back; he still has much to prove through the air, particularly with reading defenses and leading receivers. In his 10 games in 2011, Brown was all over the place. The rust was apparent this spring as Brown progressed from individual drills to 7-on-7s, but he spent the summer running 7-on-7s with the first-team wide receivers, so there’s no internal worry about his connections with Diggs, Long and Nigel King. But he still hasn’t taken a college snap — or received a college hit — since November 2011. August will still be a growing period for Brown, but September will truly test his comeback capabilities.
2) Who will win the backup job? This spring, Young took full first-team repetitions as Brown, Hills and Rowe all rehabbed their injuries. But he, Hills and Rowe are all listed as co-backups behind Brown entering camp. Once Brown went down last summer, Hills became the starter primarily because of his leadership qualities and ability to pick up the system; Rowe is faster and a better passer, but at the time he was a step behind Hills in learning the offense. The playing field was somewhat equalized over the offseason as both rehabbed their respective torn ACLs, and if the Terps project Rowe as the better backup quarterback, Hills’s seven games of starting experience might matter less. Edsall has said he wants to redshirt either Hills or Rowe. With Brown granted a sixth year of eligibility, Elite 11 recruit Shane Cockerille already on campus and 2014 standout Will Ulmer on the way, Hills and Rowe could find themselves relegated to a primarily reserve role moving forward, but still give the Terps necessary depth.
Young, for his part, was once the Washington Gatorade Player of the Year, bounced from Virginia Tech to New Mexico (under Locksley) to finally College Park, and spent last fall on the scout team. Had Young been eligible, he without a doubt would have seen plenty of action. Young’s in-game college inexperience is probably the biggest knock, but with a strong summer he can vault himself into the backup role and maybe even spell Brown for a few snaps here or there with his strong zone-read skills. This is his fourth year in college, too; he knows how things work.
3) Can the quarterbacks receive enough protection? If the Terps continue relying on the zone read, and the play-action fakes that come with it, Brown and the other quarterbacks could be exposing themselves to harder hits. Brown, who broke his collarbone on his first career series in 2010 and tore his ACL during preseason last year, is tough enough to take a hit, but how will he adjust once the red practice jersey comes off on Aug. 31? A stout offensive line would ease Brown’s transition into live, full-contact play, but a partial onus falls on him, too. So long as Brown is a capable threat who capitalizes several times each game — and not tucking and running and taking shots, say, once a series — the zone read can still succeed. Maryland needs healthy quarterbacks, specifically a healthy Brown. And while the initial ACL tears weren’t caused by faulty protection — Brown in preseason, Hills on an illegal block, Rowe running out of bounds — it’s up to the line, coaching staff and quarterbacks themselves to ensure they get through this season injury-free.