The hype began immediately, soon after Deon Long committed to Maryland last June. Fresh off one of the greatest receiving seasons in junior college history, Long was set to line up alongside a sophomore in Stefon Diggs many ranked among the nation’s most electric playmakers. How far could this tandem, considered among the ACC’s best pass-catching duos, take the Maryland football team?
On Sunday morning, the Terrapins woke up to face a delicate, albeit not unfamiliar, situation. After breaking his tibia and fibula, Long was having surgery, a six-month recovery ahead. Diggs, who broke his fibula in the same 34-10 loss to Wake Forest the afternoon before, will wait; his surgery comes later this week.
And so Maryland loses 66 combined catches this season, over 1,000 receiving yards and, certainly, two of its biggest stars for the remainder of this season. Even with the demoralizing loss, the Terps are still 5-2. Bowl eligibility remains attainable — Syracuse’s Nov. 9 visit to College Park is a solid bet — even with the cavalcade of backups elevated into starting roles. Maryland talks ad nauseam about its “next man up” mentality, so who replaces Diggs and Long?
The task, similar to what the Terps faced last season after four quarterbacks went down in succession, won’t be easy. After all, entering Saturday, the combination of close friends ranked second in the ACC among receiving duos in aggregate receiving yards this season. And the remaining 10 Maryland players who have caught passes this season, taken together, still fall way short of matching what Long and Diggs have done, even though Coach Randy Edsall feels confident about the pieces still left intact.
Here are the receiving candidates figuring to help the Terps try to replace Diggs and Long (Don’t expect a freshman such as Taivon Jacobs to lose his redshirt this late in the season):
DAVE STINEBAUGH: 11 catches, 162 yards, two touchdowns in 2013
He’s a reliable pass-catcher with few targets, but several key moments including the game-winning touchdown against Virginia. Perhaps the Terps look to Stinebaugh more, much like backup quarterback Caleb Rowe did three times in four snaps from the Wake Forest 15-yard line on Saturday. There’s nothing to suggest the senior cannot handle an increased load.
LEVERN JACOBS: 13 catches, 245 yards, one touchdown in 2013
Three catches for 78 yards against the Demon Deacons boosted Jacobs’ season production, and he becomes the starting slot receiver without Diggs around anymore. Still, the 56-yard catch-and-run touchdown he caught from Rowe just after halftime was Jacobs’ first career score, and he later lost a fumble on a simple strip. Diggs ends his season averaging 83.9 receiving yards per game. Jacobs has less than half that, at 35.0. He can help fill the void, but doing it alone will be tricky.
NIGEL KING: 8 catches, 122 yards, one touchdown in 2013
From an injury suffered against Connecticut to his removal from first string, King has experienced a rocky season thus far. Most of that can be attributed to the presence of Long and Diggs. With both producing so well — seven 90-yard receiving games between the two — Maryland had little need to look elsewhere for catches. But the sophomore receiver from Raleigh enjoyed arguably the most impressive spring and summer practices of any offensive player, and has five regular-season games to turn things around.
MALCOLM CULMER: 3 catches, 47 yards, zero touchdowns in 2013
AMBA ETTA-TAWO: 8 catches, 87 yards, zero touchdowns in 2013
Here’s where the production starts to drop off, right around the time Maryland needs it most. Culmer is technically the starting Z receiver, vaulting ahead of King following King’s struggles against Florida State, while barring some position switch across the line of scrimmage (perhaps moving King to the other side) Etta-Tawo would replace Long as the starting X. Edsall has raved about Culmer’s preparation and Etta-Tawo’s downfield speed but both are untested underclassmen with big shoes to fill.
“Now we have to decide on who’s that depth going to be, but we have guys go,” Edsall said Sunday, in little mood for specifics. “All those personnel decisions will be made sometime tomorrow.”
“I think everybody understands there are broken bones and broken bones heal,” he continued. “It’s unfortunate it happened, but I’m sure those guys have rehabbed hard and we’ll support them in everything they do. We’ll keep them involved, keep them engaged, and everybody’s got to go and continue to do the job they have to do on the field, in the classroom and off the field. They’re disappointed it happen to them, because they’re good guys and everything else. But it’s part of the game.”