The double wooden doors were closed to the Gossett Team House cafeteria as Maryland Coach Randy Edsall finished addressing reporters Tuesday, so Darius Kilgo and Jeremiah Johnson were free to talk as they pleased. Waiting their turn with the horde of cameras, Kilgo and Johnson’s conversation drifted toward Saturday’s season opener against Florida International. Less than five days away, the Terrapins’ nose tackle and cornerback could finally start hitting someone else other than their teammates.
“We were saying, ‘Wow, we’ve got a game in five days,’ ” Johnson said. “It’s getting more intense. I think everyone’s excited.”
As a player once privately joked, anyone enthusiastic about two-a-day practices is either a sadomasochist or a liar. The practices are long and the days exhausting, because when you experience the proverbial “eat, sleep and breathe football,” there’s really not much else to do. But the payoff – three or four hours for 12 Saturdays every fall — is worth it.
Sometime last week, the players began noticing a palpable change among the coaching staff. The energy was higher in meeting rooms, the instructions barked louder during practice. It happens every year, around the same Sunday before the season opener. Before long, the players follow suit. They start holding one another more accountable, the veterans stricter in their leadership. For some, the Sunday leading into game week becomes an energy boost for morale.
“It’s one week away,” Johnson said. “There’s no more time to mess around. Just the atmosphere, there’s a readiness.”
“Guys are more excited to come to practice,” Kilgo said. “They’re excited to study film, excited to get better, excited to learn about their opponent. You always have to come here with a positive energy, even after a long day. That’s one thing, it’s definitely spreading around, there’s energy and excitement for Saturday. We’re ready to go.”
The Terrapins have spent the past nine months couching their expectations with context. They have bad tastes in their mouths, you see, somehow at once bitter and sour, leftovers after a season-long, unsatisfying meal. And for as much as the players want to forget the acidity, the taste can’t truly leave until they taste something sweeter. Anything they want to accomplish – winning record, bowl game, ACC championship appearance, whatever – is only talk. Until that first game arrives and the season gets underway.
“Guys are really looking forward to Saturday, just getting the memory of last season gone, focus on having a good season,” running back Brandon Ross said. “It’s really something, in order to get better as a team, we had to put those memories in the past. It’s not something you have to spend too much time thinking about.”
Except every media session brings reminders of games lost, or quarterbacks injured, or defensive standouts departed. The Terps dropped six straight to close 2012 and are 6-18 the Randy Edsall era. Four quarterbacks suffered season-ending injuries, and three members of the defensive front seven are still hanging around in NFL camps. Maryland may seek a fresh start, but it’s not a rebuilding year either. They hang onto the past, but only as benchmarks for how far they want to go.
“It’s been a long three weeks of hitting each other,” Kilgo said. “This gives us an opportunity to hit a different opponent. Watching film, studying for your opponent, I love that. I love the game day atmosphere. It’s been a long offseason. Four days left. I’m ready for it to come.”
On Saturday morning, after Maryland checks out from its team hotel and spills into the Byrd Stadium locker room, Kilgo will exercise his pregame ritual. More than superstitious, it clears his mind. He will slip on his cleats and plug in his headphones and step out onto the field, alone with an empty stadium and the sun. Then he will walk. Nothing too fancy, just a few leisurely laps. He will think about his assignments and the opponent, but most of all Kilgo will think about how it’s finally here, the first Saturday of the new season.